Within minutes of receiving notification that US special counsel Robert Mueller had turned over his report on an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, congressional Democrats were calling for the report to be fully released, including the underlying evidence.
They have threatened subpoenas if it is not.
The demands are setting up a potential tug-of-war between congressional Democrats and US President Donald Trump’s administration that federal judges might eventually have to referee.
Six Democratic committee chairmen on Friday wrote in a letter to US Attorney General William Barr that if Mueller has any reason to believe that Trump “has engaged in criminal or other serious misconduct,” then the US Department of Justice should not conceal it.
“The president is not above the law and the need for public faith in our democratic institutions and the rule of law must be the priority,” the chairmen wrote.
It was unclear what Mueller has found related to the president, or if any of it would be damning.
In his investigation of whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the 2016 election, Mueller has already filed charges against 34 people, including six aides and advisers to the president, and three companies.
Lawmakers have said that they need the underlying evidence — including interviews, documents and material turned over to a grand jury — because the department has maintained that a president cannot be indicted, and also that derogatory information cannot be released about people who have not been charged.
If the investigation did find evidence incriminating against Trump, the department might not be able to release it, under its own guidelines.
The Democrats have said that it could be tantamount to a cover-up if the department did not inform the US Congress and the public what it had found.
Barr on Friday said in the letter advising the top lawmakers on the judiciary committees of the US House of Representatives and US Senate that he had received Mueller’s report and that he intends to share its “principal conclusions” with lawmakers soon, potentially over the weekend.
He added that he would consult Mueller and US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about what other parts of the report could be shared with Congress or the public.
Barr testified at his confirmation hearings that he wants to release as much information as he can about the inquiry.
However, the department’s regulations require only that the attorney general report to Congress that the investigation has concluded, and describe or explain any times when he or Rosenstein decided an action Mueller proposed “was so inappropriate or unwarranted” that it should not be pursued.
Barr on Friday said that there were no such instances where Mueller was thwarted.
However, anything less than the full report would not be enough for Democrats.
“If the AG [attorney general] plays any games, we will subpoena the report, ask Mr Mueller to testify and take it all to court if necessary,” US Representative Sean Patrick Maloney said. “The people deserve to know.”
US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff on Friday told CNN that he was willing to subpoena Mueller and Barr, if needed, to push for disclosure.
Although Trump has said that the report should be made public, it was not clear whether the administration would fight subpoenas for testimony or block the transmission of grand jury material.
If the administration decides to fight, lawmakers could ask federal courts to step in and enforce a subpoena. A court fight could, in theory, reach the US Supreme Court.
However, few tussles between Congress and the White House get that far. They are often resolved through negotiation.
In the administrations of former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, even when talks failed and courts got involved in assessing claims of executive privilege, the White House decided not to take the fight to the high court and complied with lower court rulings against it.
The Democrats, led by US House Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, could also formally ask Mueller to send his committee evidence that could be used in possible impeachment proceedings against Trump, as suggested by Benjamin Wittes, a senior Brookings Institution fellow and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog.
That was the course one of Nadler’s predecessors followed during Watergate, although an impeachment inquiry against then-US president Richard Nixon had already started by that point.
Grand jury material from special counsel Leon Jaworski, provided through the federal judge who presided over the Watergate trials, became the road map that the judiciary committee used to vote for articles of impeachment.
Nixon resigned before the full House acted on his impeachment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she is not for impeaching Trump, at least for now.
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