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Democrats launch contempt action against US attorney general

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Monday's rare and dramatic move against Attorney General Bill Barr intensifies the showdown between President Donald Trump and the Democrats who control the House of Representatives and are seeking to hold him to account for what they say was improper conduct.

[WASHINGTON] US House Democrats have scheduled a Wednesday vote on whether to hold the nation's top law enforcement official in contempt for failing to produce a full, unredacted special counsel's report on Russian election interference.

Monday's rare and dramatic move against Attorney General Bill Barr intensifies the showdown between President Donald Trump and the Democrats who control the House of Representatives and are seeking to hold him to account for what they say was improper conduct.

"The attorney general's failure to comply with our subpoena, after extensive accommodation efforts, leaves us no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings in order to enforce the subpoena and access the full, unredacted report," House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler said in a statement, after a missed 9am (1300 GMT) deadline.

The Justice Department said in a letter it remained willing to accommodate the "legitimate needs" of Congress, within the scope of the law.

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"The department's letter invites committee staff to come to the department on Wednesday to discuss a mutually acceptable accommodation," Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

The invitation was for Wednesday afternoon, hours after lawmakers begin their debate.

Mr Barr declared Mr Trump cleared of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice shortly after special counsel Robert Mueller presented his 448-page report to the Justice Department.

But Democrats have protested that Mr Barr has sought to protect the president by refusing to present the full report or underlying evidence to Congress.

The political skirmish played out on multiple fronts Monday, with the White House formally rejecting a request by Democrats to turn over Mr Trump's tax returns, setting up what will likely be a prolonged legal battle.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wrote to the House Ways and Means Committee that its request lacked a "legitimate legislative purpose."

CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY

With the two sides locked in a feud, nearly 500 former US prosecutors serving in Democratic and Republican administrations released a statement saying there was "overwhelming" evidence in the Mueller report that Mr Trump obstructed justice.

"Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in special counsel Robert Mueller's report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice," they wrote.

But Democratic lawmakers appeared laser-focused on Mr Barr, who was only confirmed to the post in mid-February.

In a 27-page contempt report, Mr Nadler said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mr Trump's chief nemesis in Congress, is empowered to "take all appropriate action" including a fine or even arrest, although such a measure would be unlikely.

"Even in redacted form, the special counsel's report offers disturbing evidence and analysis that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at the highest levels," Mr Nadler said.

"Congress must see the full report and underlying evidence to determine how to best move forward with oversight, legislation and other constitutional responsibilities."

The statement is clear reference to the potential for impeachment proceedings against Trump, although Ms Pelosi has warned against moving ahead, suggesting it could trigger a political backlash.

Mr Barr's stonewalling, and the report's setting forth of 10 instances in which Mr Trump sought to thwart the investigation - although Mr Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether crimes were committed - has galvanized support among some Democrats to demand Mr Trump's ouster.

Mr Barr testified to the US Senate last week, but refused to appear before the House over disputes about how he would be questioned.

Top Judiciary panel Republican Doug Collins blasted Mr Nadler's contempt move as "illogical and disingenuous," given that Democrats have refused a Justice Department offer for senior lawmakers to study a less redacted version.

A Republican-led House was the first to hold a sitting attorney general in contempt when it acted against Barack Obama's pick Eric Holder in 2012 for failing to turn over documents about a firearms scandal.

AFP