WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend the House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over Robert S. Mueller III’s unredacted report, hours after President Trump asserted executive privilege to shield the full report and underlying evidence from Congress.
The committee’s 24-to-16 contempt vote, taken after hours of debate that featured ominous language about the future of American democracy, was the first time that the House took official action to punish a government official amid a standoff between the legislative and executive branches. The Justice Department denounced it as an unnecessary and overwrought reaction meant to stoke a fight.
The drama raised the stakes yet again in an increasingly tense battle over evidence and witnesses as Democrats investigate Mr. Trump and his administration to judge whether to hold the president to account for behavior detailed by Mr. Mueller, the special counsel. By the day’s end, it seemed all but inevitable that the competing claims would have to be settled in the nation’s courts rather than on Capitol Hill, as Democrats had initially hoped after the delivery of Mr. Mueller’s report last month.
“Our fight is not just about the Mueller report — although we must have access to the Mueller report,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said during a grueling debate. “Our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president, any president, accountable.”
After the vote concluded, he swatted away questions about possible impeachment, but added, “We are now in a constitutional crisis.”
The Justice Department, the White House and House Republicans lined up to contest that claim, shooting back that Democrats were the ones abusing their powers to manufacture a crisis.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Kerri Kupec, deplored the contempt vote as “politically motivated and unnecessary,” and the two sides traded blame over who had cut off weeks of negotiations over a possible compromise.
“Regrettably, Chairman Nadler’s actions have prematurely terminated the accommodation process and forced the president to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo,” Ms. Kupec said. “No one, including Chairman Nadler and his committee, will force the Department of Justice to break the law.”
Though Mr. Trump has repeatedly tried to withhold information from Congress, and pledged an across-the-board objection to House subpoenas, the executive privilege assertion is his first use of the secrecy powers as president.
The Justice Department, which asked the president to step in, described the claim as “protective” to allow Mr. Trump time to fully review the materials to make a final privilege determination. But the timing of the assertion signaled that the White House was eager for a fight.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the president’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy,” said the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
It was not immediately clear when the full House would vote, and the intervening period could allow Mr. Barr time to negotiate. Mr. Nadler said he expected a House vote “rapidly.”
After a contempt vote, the House was likely to file a lawsuit seeking to enforce their subpoena, but the ensuing legal process could take years, effectively stalling Democrats’ quest.
Passage of such a resolution would be only the second time in American history that the nation’s top law enforcement official is found to be in contempt of Congress.
Mr. Barr voluntarily released last month a redacted version of the special counsel’s 448-page report, which concluded that despite ample efforts by the Kremlin, the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Mueller also laid out at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice, and said he could not make a traditional judgment because of various legal constraints.
But Democrats say Mr. Barr’s version is not good enough, and they have accused the attorney general of stonewalling a legitimate request for material they need to pick up an investigation into possible obstruction of justice and abuse of power by Mr. Trump. The Democrats’ request includes secretive grand jury information and other evidence.
The committee’s 27-page contempt report lays out the panel’s need for the report and offers an accounting of attempts to get Mr. Barr to share the materials first voluntarily and then under subpoena.
The Justice Department had tried to stave off the committee vote, offering to lawmakers some concessions around a less redacted version of the Mueller report, which omitted only grand jury material. Democrats deemed the offer insufficient.
The Justice Department had other objections to the subpoena. Compliance would require the department to violate “the law, court rules and court orders” as well as grand jury secrecy rules, a Justice Department official, Stephen E. Boyd, wrote. Republicans on the committee seized on that point to accuse Democrats of forcing Mr. Barr to choose between complying with their subpoena or the law.
But Democrats said they did not expect Mr. Barr to break the law and unilaterally release grand jury secrets, but rather to join them in petitioning a judge to unseal material for the grand jury for committee use.
Mr. Nadler said after the vote that Democrats intended to go to the judge on their own authority.
Democrats view the president’s executive privilege claim as nonsense, since much of the report and evidence has either been released publicly or shared with lawyers.
Still, Mr. Trump’s invocation of privilege could tie up the material in court and significantly complicate Democrats’ efforts to call other witnesses. Mr. Nadler said Wednesday it could delay a potential hearing with Mr. Mueller in the Judiciary Committee. And it could also limit testimony by Donald F. McGahn II, a former White House counsel and key witness in the special counsel’s investigation, scheduled under subpoena for May 21.
Democrats’ frustration in the hearing room was clear. “I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said.
Republicans rose one after another to defend the attorney general and urge the Democrats to turn their investigative focus to the origins of what they see as a special counsel investigation cooked up to smear the president.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who was one of the “managers” of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, criticized Democrats for lending support to a “character assassination squad running around this town” sullying innocent people.
There is little precedent for holding an attorney general in contempt. House Republicans did it for the first time in 2012, for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in connection with requests for information about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation. Republicans cited that case frequently on Wednesday in an effort to paint Democrats as unreasonable. They had waited hundreds of days before escalating their fight over documents to a contempt citation, they said. Democrats waited just a few weeks in the instance of Mr. Barr.
“Why this rush?” asked Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. “Without any valid legislative or administrative reason, we can only assume Democrats, led by the chairman, have resolved to sully Bill Barr’s good name and reputation.”
The example is a potentially cautionary one for both sides. Despite President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over the material in questions, House lawmakers ultimately prevailed in court, forcing the administration to hand over the evidence. But the process took years to play out and could have taken longer if the Obama administration had appealed a court’s decision.
In this case, a contempt citation does not guarantee an outcome Democrats want. While defying a congressional subpoena is technically a misdemeanor crime, it is up to the Justice Department to decide whether to prosecute. And though Democrats have mused in recent weeks about the authority of the House to apply punishments, including fines and detention, those outcomes have little modern precedent and are unlikely to actually be pursued.
Instead, a contempt citation would effectively push the dispute into the courts, where a judge could decide whether to force the administration to hand over the material. But that process would be lengthy, especially with Democrats likely to turn to the courts in a range of other disputes over Mr. Trump’s tax returns and over other potential witnesses to the obstruction investigation.