Past Attorney General Went Unpunished for Contempt

Can Attorney General William Barr thumb his nose at Congress and get away with it? Can the nation’s top lawman refuse to honor a House Judiciary Committee subpoena for an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and not pay a penalty?

In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder did just that. Holder defied a congressional subpoena to furnish documents about Operation “Fast and Furious,” a program to attempt to trace gun trafficking along the southwest border that went awry. The House held Holder in contempt, but since Holder declined to indict himself, the controversy faded. Holder resigned in 2015.

“Congress can’t enforce their own contempt charges; all they can do is give notice to the attorney general that they would like it enforced, and Eric Holder never enforced it against himself,” observed Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute. Harkins doesn’t expect Barr to charge himself, either.

Stanford law professor Michael McConnell wrote in the Washington Post about the parallels between Barr and Holder. The Obama administration said disclosing information about executive decision-making would “inhibit the candor” of officials inside the administration. An assistant attorney general falsely told Congress the Obama administration was unaware of Fast and Furious — a claim the administration had to pull back — and Holder said he would provide the subpoenaed documents only if the committee agreed to close the investigation.

Next, as far as Holder was concerned, nothing happened. “The Obama administration ran out the clock. Holder never complied with the subpoena and went unpunished for the contempt,” McConnell wrote.
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