AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In a party line vote, the House Judiciary Committee has voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to provide an unredacted copy of the Mueller report. And depending on who you talk to, this standoff between the House Judiciary Committee and the attorney general is unprecedented.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JERRY NADLER: If allowed to go unchecked, this obstruction means the end of congressional oversight.
CHANG: That’s House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat. Or as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders sees it, Nadler and his committee are pushing the limits of the law.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SARAH SANDERS: Chairman Nadler is asking the attorney general of the United States to break the law.
CHANG: New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He joins me now. Welcome.
HAKEEM JEFFRIES: Great to be on.
CHANG: What does holding the attorney general in contempt actually accomplish for you, other than setting up a lengthy court battle between Congress and the White House?
JEFFRIES: Well, when there is a dispute between the Article I legislative branch and the Article II executive branch, the constitutional fabric that has been set up is to allow the courts to resolve that dispute. They are independent arbiters for the American people. And so the contempt citation will ultimately have to be enforced by the court system. But that is consistent with the democratic republic that we exist in, and that’s a good thing for the American people.
CHANG: But if this gets ensnared in the courts, you still won’t get the unredacted Muller report as the issue is winding its way through the court system. You won’t get all the underlying evidence. So, again, the question is, what are you accomplishing?
JEFFRIES: Well, it is our hope that it won’t be protracted. This really strikes at the heart and soul of our democracy. You have checks and balances. We think that in this particular instance the court can proceed in an expedited basis initially at the district court level and then if necessary before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court. This is why the Supreme Court is there.
CHANG: But Democrats also have impeachment at their disposal, potentially. Are House Democrats still on the same page about not pursuing impeachment at the same time that this administration has been disregarding your subpoenas?
JEFFRIES: Yes, impeachment is an extraordinary remedy contained in the Constitution. And so we are of the view, as Speaker Pelosi has articulated, that the case must be compelling, the evidence must be overwhelming and the public sentiment around impeachment should be bipartisan in nature. Our job right now is to collect the information, which is why we are trying to enforce this subpoena that the attorney general has disregarded. We want complete access to the unredacted Mueller report because the attorney general can’t be trusted given how he’s conducted himself to have done those redactions in a responsible way. We want the underlying documentation.
CHANG: The chair of your Judiciary Committee has called this situation a, quote, “constitutional crisis.” You have just said that impeachment could be appropriate in extraordinary circumstances. If the situation has now risen to truly a constitutional crisis, why are Democrats relying on the courts rather than seriously considering impeachment?
JEFFRIES: Well, we have to gather the information before we make that decision. And so we need to see the unredacted Muller report. We need to see the underlying documentation.
CHANG: Jerry Nadler is already calling this a constitutional crisis.
JEFFRIES: Right. Well, that’s the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And I believe that Jerry Nadler’s characterization is appropriate. We still have to proceed in a responsible fashion. We want to make sure Bob Mueller can tell his story to the American people.
CHANG: I guess what I’m trying to ask is are Democrats trying to have it both ways by calling the present situation a constitutional crisis, by calling the present situation extraordinary, but then saying, well, we got to wait and see and keep collecting evidence to see if impeachment is appropriate.
JEFFRIES: Well, I think what’s important is that the House effectively functions as the grand jury. And impeachment is the functional equivalent of an indictment. You can’t proceed directly to an indictment. You have to gather information and evidence. Sometimes there are witnesses who obstruct justice. And that appears to be the case right now. But you still have a responsibility to gather as much evidence as you can before deciding to proceed with an extraordinary remedy.
CHANG: So you are saying that impeachment is very much on the table.
JEFFRIES: Impeachment is not off the table. Impeachment is not on the table. It’s not an issue that we’re focused on right now. We want to get through this contempt proceeding and then decide what’s appropriate from there.
CHANG: New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is the chair of the Democratic Caucus and a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Thank you very much for joining us today.
JEFFRIES: As always, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.