The House Judiciary Committee voted to hold attorney general William Barr in contempt of Congress on Wednesday, the latest escalation in the battle between congressional Democrats and president Donald Trump over the Mueller report.
The committee voted broadly along party lines to move forward with contempt proceedings. Some 24 Democrats voted in favour, while 16 Republicans voted against. A full vote on the floor of the House will now be scheduled, and the issue is ultimately likely to end up in court.
"We are now in a constitutional crisis," declared committee chairman Jerry Nadler after the vote. "We did not relish doing this but we had no choice," he added, claiming that Mr Barr had "proved himself to be the personal attorney to president Trump" by misleading the public as to the contents of the Mueller report and lying to Congress.
The vote followed hours of debate, during which Republicans accused Democrats of being in “denial” about Donald Trump’s election victory, arguing that they wanted to “bring down” Mr Barr.
"I think it's all about trying to destroy Bill Barr because Democrats are nervous he's going to get to the bottom of everything," Republican congressman Jim Jordan said. "He's going to find out how and why this [Mueller] investigation started in the first place."
The scene was set for an acrimonious committee meeting earlier in the day, when the president exerted executive privilege over the unredacted version of the Mueller report and related documents.
In a letter to Congress, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd said the president had "asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials". The White House confirmed that the move was taken on the advice of the attorney general.
It is the first time Mr Trump has utilised his executive powers to prevent the release of documents since his election as president.
Mr Boyd also underlined the reasons why the attorney general could not comply with the committee’s request – ultimately leading to the committee’s decision to hold him in contempt.
“As we have repeatedly explained, the attorney general could not comply with your subpoena in its current form without violating the law, court rules and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions,” Mr Boyd wrote.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders echoed these comments: "The attorney general is protecting information, grand jury information, confidential information that he cannot release," she told reporters at the White House.
She accused House judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler of “pandering to the press and pleasing his radical left constituency” by requesting the unredacted version of the report and related documents.
Mr Barr provided a redacted version of the 448-page Mueller report on April 18th, having previously issued a four-page summary of its findings. But Democrats have accused him of misrepresenting the findings of the report, arguing that they have the right to see the material in its entirety as well as associated documents and evidence.
Separately, various media channels reported that Mr Trump's son, Donald Trump jnr, had been subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.