What it really means that House Democrats just formally held William Barr and Wilbur Ross in contempt

Today the House of Representatives made it official: Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr and Donald Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross have been formally held in criminal contempt for refusing to cooperate with House committee investigations. Some pundits are claiming that this vote was merely symbolic, while others are portraying it as a magic wand that will instantly send Barr and Ross through a trap door. Neither portrayal is accurate. Here’s what it really means.

First, let’s start with what House Democrats can’t do. They can’t refer William Barr and Wilbur Ross to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, because Barr controls the Department of Justice. There’s no magically getting around this, at least as long as Barr remains in charge. Nor can the House Democrats magically get rid of Barr simply by moving to impeach him; that’s not how anything works. The DOJ can prosecute Barr once he’s gone, but that won’t happen soon. In the meantime, House Democrats can (and will) make some other important things happen with this contempt citation.

House Democrats can take this criminal contempt citation into federal court and convince a judge to order William Barr and Wilbur Ross to show up and testify before Congress. If they still refuse at that point, the court will have Barr and Ross thrown in jail for contempt, as the courts have much more leeway in enforcing contempt citations than Congress does. That won’t happen immediately; the courts don’t work that way. But it will happen.

These contempt citations will also help House Democrats with their overall court battle aimed at forcing witnesses to Donald Trump’s obstruction of justice to testify and turn over evidence against him. The more the Democrats can prove that Trump and his administration are dealing with Congress in bad faith, the easier it’ll be to win their court battles. In practical terms, the impeachment process cannot begin (and expect to go anywhere) until the Democrats have won their legal battles in court. Until then, everything is about advancing that goal.

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