WASHINGTON - The House took its strongest step yet in the standoff with President Donald Trump over congressional oversight, voting Tuesday to seek court enforcement of subpoenas for Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
On a party-line vote of 229-191, the House passed a resolution that would empower the House Judiciary Committee to go to court against Barr and McGahn over non-compliance with requests for documents and testimony.
The vote keeps Democrats squarely on a meticulous investigative track favored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top leaders - and away from the formal impeachment inquiry that some 60 rank-and-file Democrats and several 2020 presidential candidates have been seeking.
Still, the House vote reflects the frustration among Democrats with Trump's unwillingness to cooperate with congressional investigators who argue they have a constitutional right to examine the executive branch.
"This is a dark time. This Congress is being tested - in this case, not by a foreign adversary, but by our own president," said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., adding that Trump's blanket policy of not complying with congressional subpoenas makes "Richard Nixon look like an Eagle Scout."
House Republicans lambasted Tuesday's vote as a distraction from bigger issues facing the country, including the southern border crisis. Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., borrowed one of Trump's favorite descriptions, calling the vote "presidential harassment."
"When you go around the country, you don't hear people saying they want to continue going down this rathole of witch hunts and impeachments," he told reporters. "They're on this witch hunt, this search to fund something, as opposed to focusing on the problems of this country."
Democrats have already gone to federal judges in Washington and New York to seek enforcement of subpoenas targeting Trump's financial records that are in the possession of private companies. They have scored initial wins in trial courts, but appeals are likely to play out over the coming months - a sluggish timeline that has fueled the push for impeachment.
The vote stops short of a criminal contempt citation, a more serious sanction, and it comes a day after the Justice Department agreed to begin providing materials gathered by former special counsel Robert Mueller during his nearly two-year probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Still, Democrats cast the vote as their most serious move yet in a campaign to hold Trump accountable for his actions to derail Mueller's investigation.
Speaking at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's Fiscal Summit Tuesday, Pelosi said "not even close" to a majority of House Democrats favor launching impeachment proceedings against Trump and would not say whether she would allow an inquiry to proceed if most Democrats favored one.
"Why are we speculating on hypotheticals?" Pelosi asked. She also argued that Trump's attacks on her - he called her a "a nasty, vindictive, horrible person" last week - have only bolstered her political standing.
"My stock goes up every time he attacks me," said Pelosi.
Heading to Iowa, Trump told reporters that Pelosi "is a mess" and criticized Democrats' investigations.
"All they do is waste time where there is no obstruction, no collusion. And in the meantime, we can't get anything done," said the president. "We need them to work on illegal immigration, on drug prices, on infrastructure."
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a Judiciary Committee member, said the aggressive tactics helped force the Justice Department to make at least some of Mueller's material available to Congress after a monthslong standoff.
"They've begun to recognize that we are going to function like a separate and coequal branch of government," he said, contrasting Democrats' posture to that of the prior Republican majority: "They consistently bent the knee to Donald Trump. That is something we will refuse to do. And we are going to make it clear that no one is above the law, one way or the other."
Barr's agreement to make some of Mueller's materials available has at least temporarily forestalled any enforcement action. The Justice Department's understanding when it reached a deal with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., was that while the committee would proceed with Tuesday's resolution vote giving the committee authorization to sue, it would not actually file a suit if the Justice Department held up its end of the bargain, according to a U.S. official. The department never viewed the resolution as holding the attorney general in contempt, the official said.
Nadler confirmed in floor remarks Tuesday that enforcement of the Barr subpoena would be held "in abeyance for now." But he said the House would take action to secure testimony from other former and current Trump officials.
"This unprecedented stonewalling by the administration is completely unacceptable," he said.
The Judiciary panel could move swiftly to ask a judge to order testimony from McGahn, who was a key witness in Mueller's investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice during the probe. The committee could also petition a federal judge to release protected grand jury materials gathered in the probe, which underpin many of the key sections that Justice Department officials redacted from Mueller's report.
McGahn has so far declined to testify pursuant to a White House legal opinion holding that close presidential advisers cannot be compelled to testify. "Mr. McGahn remains obligated to maintain the status quo and will respect the president's instruction," his lawyer, William Burck, told the committee last month.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a Judiciary Committee member, said it will be up to Nadler to determine how to proceed against McGahn but predicted little hesitation.
"I think he's made it clear that he is very committed to getting Mr. McGahn before the committee as quickly as possible," Cicilline said.
Tuesday's vote also does nothing to bring Mueller himself before the House for testimony, whether public or private. Many Democrats believe that a high-profile hearing starring the former FBI director is the best opportunity they have to refocus public attention on Trump's alleged misdeeds - and build the case for impeachment.
A Judiciary Committee hearing Monday featuring former Nixon counsel John Dean and legal experts, for instance, did little to change sentiments on Capitol Hill, and it did not appear to generate any nationally relevant moments that could make a broader impact on public opinion.
"The most important thing from my perspective remains public testimony from Bob Mueller," Jeffries said after that hearing.
The panel is also seeking the testimony of two other Trump aides, former communications director Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, a top aide to McGahn. Those subpoenas were not targeted for enforcement in the resolution passed Tuesday, but it permits the committee to seek authorization from the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a special panel of top House leaders controlled by Democrats - sidestepping the need for future floor votes.
The chairman of nearly any House committee, in fact, now has the ability to seek authorization from the group to "initiate or intervene in any judicial proceeding before a federal court" to enforce any duly issued subpoena.
Nadler said Tuesday the broad authorization was necessary to combat the Trump administration's stonewalling strategy: "We cannot afford to waste all the floor time for every single time the administration rejects one of our subpoenas, which is every time we issue a subpoena."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blasted that move Tuesday, telling reporters it amounted to an unprecedented delegation of legislative powers to a small panel of party leaders.
“It’s something Congress has never done before,” he said. “What the Democrat majority is doing is, they’re trying to get to impeachment without having their members actually vote upon it. They’re trying to protect members from not taking a difficult vote.”