House Votes To Let Its Leaders Pursue Contempt Lawsuits In Trump Inquiries The House has authorized its committee leaders to pursue civil contempt cases to get information for their myriad investigations into President Trump. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Tim Mak, and national security editor Phil Ewing. Email the show at Find and support your local public radio station at
NPR logo

House Votes To Let Its Leaders Pursue Contempt Lawsuits In Trump Inquiries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
House Votes To Let Its Leaders Pursue Contempt Lawsuits In Trump Inquiries

House Votes To Let Its Leaders Pursue Contempt Lawsuits In Trump Inquiries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JADE: Hey, this is Jade (ph). I'm a Canadian transwoman and international truck driver. From Colorado to Massachusetts, I've had the luxury of visiting many beautiful states with diverse landscapes and people. I don't know where I'm welcome here but always find comfort in the countless NPR public radio stations that truly enrich this great country. I'd like to thank each member of your team for making this world a more informed, levelheaded and positive place. This show was recorded at...


5:25 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11.

JADE: Some things may have changed by the time you hear it, like my current time zone, which is about to bring me sooner to my loving wife, daughter and son who will be born in a few weeks. Thanks for listening.


KEITH: Drive safely out there, and thank you for listening.

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: A baby announcement on the podcast.

KEITH: Yes. More life events on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Hey there. This is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: I'm Tim Mak. I cover politics.

EWING: And I'm Phil Ewing, national security editor.

KEITH: All right. So, Tim, you are over at the big Capitol building, and today, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that will enforce subpoenas against Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn. Leading into today, there was a lot of talk about the word contempt. Tim, what did House Democrats actually vote to do today?

MAK: So basically, what they're doing is they're trying to set up a number of lawsuits in order to enforce subpoenas that are issued as part of their ongoing investigations into various matters relating to the Trump administration.

KEITH: Yeah. And, Phil, there are a lot of subpoenas outstanding, a lot of requests, a lot of letters, a lot of avenues here.

EWING: That's right. There are a ton of them. And just to pick up a point you made a moment ago, Tam, this is not contempt of Congress. This litigation would be civil contempt, as Tim was describing. Members of Congress want information from the administration, from others, and they haven't been able to get it under these subpoenas. They're going to go to a judge and ask that judge to order the various defendants, whether it's the attorney general or others, to give them what they want.

And it does include the Justice Department, the stuff from Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, but not only that. It also includes the president's tax returns, which Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has not given to Congress, the president's financial records, the records of his business dealings, the records of the White House's decision to overrule professional staffers who didn't want to give security clearances to 25 people who worked in the administration and more and more and more. There's a huge portfolio of investigations that Congress wants to pursue.

KEITH: So like when Democrats won the House, they said we have all of these things we want to do. And now we've got subpoena power, and we're going to be able to get these documents and do these investigations. And instead, what's been happening is they have gotten a lot of letters back.

EWING: Yeah. Right. It turns out that a subpoena is not as powerful as perhaps these chairmen and the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, actually wishes because what's been happening is people have been in receipt of these congressional subpoenas, and they have gotten some responses, but they've also gotten answers like the one they got from the attorney general about the Mueller report about material that belonged to White House counsel Don McGahn in which he said this is covered by executive privilege, this doctrine that allows an administration to shield some of its workings from public view. And that is why this is going to court in the way that past disputes have between Congress and opposite party administrations.

KEITH: Tim, do you have any sense of how this typically goes?

MAK: Well, it's interesting - right? - because Congress and the executive branch, they're two coequal branches. There's very often a lot of tension between the two. If and when Democrats decide to go to the courts to enforce these subpoenas, there's going to be a lengthy legal battle that comes out of it. And it will be up to a judge to decide what, you know, how this subpoena is going to be dealt with.

KEITH: Yeah. And I guess it kind of depends on which judge you get. But in the past, I think that many judges have sort of erred on the side of congressional oversight being something that is considered a thing that is valuable and important.

MAK: And the principle of executive privilege isn't nothing either - right? - that there is this principle that within the White House the president should be able to get private advice from his advisers and within his administration that isn't necessarily subject to oversight and investigations by Congress. And that's something that the judiciary has been willing to, on some occasions, respect.

EWING: But Republicans made the point with this vote that this is actually a risky strategy in their view for the House because, like any party who goes to court, you could lose. And if House Democrats take this litigation forward and a judge says executive privilege is going to stand or no you don't have the right to access the material or no you may not get what you are asking for, they, in this view, will have harmed the ability to do this oversight of the House for future Houses, irrespective of who's in the majority. And so the point you heard from the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins, and others was the reason to do it the right way is to protect the power of Congress. And the challenge with taking this out of the hands of Congress and putting it into a court in the hands of a judge is if you lose, that sets a precedent for potential future losses.

MAK: Right. And that's a point that Congressman Tom Cole - he's a longtime Republican from Oklahoma - that's a point that he made on the House floor today.


TOM COLE: Without exhausting all other options - continuing negotiation, discussion, compromise and turning to a vote on contempt as the last resort - the majority's instead pushing this forward into litigation with the executive branch. And in doing so, they may well be placing the House in a position that causes significant long-term damage to the institution.

KEITH: So you have basically the Article I branch of government, which is the Congress, in a dispute with the Article II branch, which is the White House. And then you're bringing in the judiciary to mediate this. And whoever loses could see an erosion in their power.

MAK: Right. And there's the very real possibility of a constitutional crisis coming up if one side or the other decides they don't want to respect what the judiciary says in its final ruling.

EWING: There's also a political calculation here, obviously. Democrats and Republicans both have their eyes on the election next year. Democrats want to get these cases filed and litigated and resolved as quickly as possible because the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, wants to protect her majority next year. There's a whole passel of Democrats running for president. They want to have what they're going to get if they can resolve these subpoenas from the Trump Organization from inside the administration and use it politically. The president and Republicans want this to take as long as possible so that no matter what the resolution of the case is, this stuff, this material, doesn't come out until after the election because then that would deny Democrats the ability to use it against him politically.

KEITH: Phil, you glanced on the politics here. We are going to get into much more of it and what this move means for impeachment after the break.

And we're back. And let's talk about what this means for impeachment. There are a number of House Democrats, though not a majority of House Democrats, who say that they think that now is the time to begin impeachment proceedings. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been trying to hold them back. So where does this fit?

MAK: You know, today's resolution was kind of a way to let off a little bit of steam, right? There's this real divide amongst House Democrats right now - should we begin impeachment proceedings or should we wait a little bit and continue with investigations or maybe not go down that pathway at all? So taking this kind of approach, moving forward and voting on a resolution that allows litigation to be set up, allows for investigations to proceed, is a signal to the Democratic base from House leadership and the speaker saying, look; we're still fighting, we're still trying to keep the Trump administration accountable. They're not cooperating with our legitimate oversight, but we are trying everything that we can in order to do it. There is a real schism within the House Democratic Caucus right now. And this is one way they're trying to handle it.

KEITH: Speaker Nancy Pelosi today before the vote - way before the vote - was speaking at a conference, and she was asked multiple times about impeachment. And she was very dismissive, didn't really want to talk about that. She said she's focused on...


NANCY PELOSI: Legislating, investigating, litigating. I want you to add the litigating.

EWING: What the speaker is describing is a "Star Trek II" Khan Noonien Singh strategy where in this construction...

KEITH: Wait. I'm really sorry, but this is a "Star Wars" podcast.

EWING: That's a "Star Trek."

KEITH: I know.

EWING: Oh. What?

KEITH: (Laughter) You can't be making "Star Trek" references on this podcast.

EWING: This - there's no "Star Wars" references applicable here. All right. Take three.

KEITH: (Laughter).

EWING: What the speaker is describing is a strategy that runs short of impeachment. What she wants to do is try and hurt the president and go on hurting him politically because she thinks that decision to try to remove him is going to be a loser. And what you hear Democrats say over and over again is the president wants them to try to impeach him because they know Republicans continue to control the Senate. Pelosi sees a lot of the same polling that we see about how a majority of modern Americans don't support impeachment. And if Democrats attempt to remove the president and fail, they will see that - Republicans and the president - as a win for them and as a rebuke to her, which she does not want. At the same time, as we heard from Tim a moment ago, she's got this very restive minority of her majority that wants to go after Trump. And there's a ton of liberal Democrats across the country in the Democratic base who also want her to go after him, too.

KEITH: But, Phil, you mention moderates - never mind moderates. The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll that we just got shows that Democrats - like, voting Democrats - are deeply divided. There is not a consensus among Democrats about whether to move forward with impeachment proceedings or just to continue investigating on this other track.

EWING: And sometimes she herself sounds conflicted when she talks about this. You'll hear her on one day say, we're not going to do that; he's not worth it; we're going to focus on prescription drugs or our agenda that, you know, we think we should focus on. And another day, she'll say that something the president has done is, in her words, an impeachable offense, or she'll say according to reports he should be in prison. And the speaker herself appears to be struggling with this very question in real time before our eyes.

KEITH: Tim, is she just trying to have it both ways there? Is she trying to appease the base while not appeasing the base?

MAK: Well, that's part of it, right? Like, you know, there are, by NPR's count, 60 Democratic House members that are currently calling for the beginning of impeachment proceedings. But you have to take that in context - right? - that there are 235 Democratic members of the House. So she's got this very vocal quarter of the House Democratic Caucus that really, really wants to move down this impeachment path. But as you mentioned with the polling and, you know, as the stats suggest with the House, the numbers aren't there for the public. And they're not there within her conference yet, yet she still has to balance these competing demands.

KEITH: And then on the other side of the aisle, Republicans are united. I mean, there is one House Republican who says that impeachment proceedings should begin. But in terms of the Republican electorate and every other Republican member of Congress, their verdict is in - move on.

MAK: Almost unanimously Republicans are saying that there should be no, you know, quote, "do-over." We don't need to continue to investigate what the Mueller probe has investigated. A lot of money has already been spent on the issues of figuring out Russia's role in interfering in 2016, as well as the obstruction question. And this should just be a wrap. Democrats obviously don't see it that way.

KEITH: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. And tomorrow morning, we will be back on the road to 2020 with an interview with Senator Kamala Harris, Scott Detrow was out in Iowa and sat down for an exclusive interview with her where she had some thoughts on President Trump that surprised even us. And, of course, we asked her what she couldn't let go of this week. Keep an eye out for the pod early tomorrow morning. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MAK: I'm Tim Mak. I cover politics.

EWING: And I'm Phil Ewing, national security editor.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.