Attorney General William Barr was a no-show as the House Judiciary Committee met Thursday morning after the Justice Department said would he would decline to testify before the panel amid disagreements over the hearing's format, prompting a threat that he could be held in contempt of Congress.
After gaveling in the hearing, the committee's Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, said given Barr's "lack of candor' at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Democrats were right to insist on the extended questioning to which Barr had objected.
Rep. Jerry Nadler opens the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller report without Attorney General William Barr: “Although we worked to accommodate his concerns, he objects to the prospect of answering questions by staff counsel" https://t.co/yP516yfe80 pic.twitter.com/R1y3GSsa6C— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) May 2, 2019
Nadler issued a sweeping condemnation of Barr and the administration's posture towards congressional oversight, slamming Barr's decision to skip the hearing, and the Justice Department's decision to ignore the committee's subpoena for the full, unredacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller.
Democrats, he said, would continue to negotiate for more access to the full Mueller report over the next few days but would have "no choice" but to hold Barr in contempt of Congress if the Justice Department fails to negotiate in "good faith."
"If left unchecked, this act of obstruction will make it that much harder for us to hold the Executive Branch accountable for waste, fraud, and abuse, or to enact legislation to curb that kind of misconduct—no matter which party holds this chamber or the White House at a given moment," Nadler said.
“In the days since the Department of Justice released a redacted version of the report, President Trump has told Congress that he plans to fight all of our subpoenas. The average person is not free to ignore a congressional subpoena—and neither is the President," Nadler said, referencing administration efforts to block other committees' inquiries."
One committee Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., brought a bucket of KFC chicken and a ceramic chicken to the hearing.
Some members munched on the fried chicken before the hearing began.
The bucket was later placed on the witness table next to the empty chair from which Barr would have testified.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the top Republican on the panel, criticized Democrats for attempting to have committee lawyers question the attorney general.
"The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because Democrats didn’t want him here," he said.
"You can disagree with the attorney general all you want, but yesterday he sat for six hours of questions," he said. "We’re not getting that opportunity today because the stunt and circus continues over here."
Republican Rep. Doug Collins blames Democrats for Attorney General William Barr not showing up at the House Judiciary Committee hearing, saying Democrats are going " back to a circus political stunt" and "want it to look like an impeachment hearing" https://t.co/yP516yfe80 pic.twitter.com/D9hajDiLNe— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) May 2, 2019
Nadler then gaveled out the hearing quickly as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tried to interject and request time to speak.
"When push comes to shove, the administration cannot dictate the terms of our hearing and our hearing room," Nadler told reporters Wednesday.
Nadler depicted Barr's move as "simply part of the administration's complete stonewalling of Congress.” He added that he felt Barr is “terrified" of having to face questions from members.
The Justice Department has objected to the format of questioning by committee lawyers, a position the agency reiterated after Barr's marathon testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Chairman Nadler placed conditions on the House Judiciary Committee hearing that are unprecedented and unnecessary," DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler says if Attorney General William Barr doesn't provide the unredacted Mueller report to Congress in the next day or two, "the next step is seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general" https://t.co/tgHs1uTdye pic.twitter.com/hKRKzcBzpk— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) May 1, 2019
Democrats vowed to plow forward with their investigations despite their struggles to obtain more access to the Mueller report and underlying documents. They are hoping to schedule a hearing with Mueller on May 15, and another with former White House counsel Don McGahn later this month.
As for Barr, Democrats could issue a subpoena for his testimony, hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress, or even move to impeach him - a dramatic step that some members fear could take attention away from Mueller's findings and scrutiny of the Trump administration.
The only Cabinet secretary ever impeached by the House was Secretary of War William Belknap, in 1876, over concerns about corruption. Belknap, who resigned from the Grant administration before the House vote, was acquitted by the Senate.
"The attorney general is clearly acting in contempt of Congress, there's no doubt about it," Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee, told ABC News Wednesday afternoon. "Whether that's the best use of our time as we're trying to get the facts for the American people, that's another question."
The acrimony over Barr's appearance between Republicans and Democrats was on display in the committee's Wednesday meeting to approve the adjusted format for the hearing.
Lawmakers bickered over the format, even as Barr testified before the Senate.
Democrats said Wednesday that the newly-released letter special counsel Robert Mueller sent Barr in March calling for the release of his own investigative summaries highlighted the importance of allowing committee lawyers to question the Barr more extensively.
Democrats argued they had ample precedent to allow committee lawyers to question Barr, a Cabinet official, beyond impeachment hearings citing the Iran-Contra hearings, among others.
“This committee should not hamstring its ability to question the attorney general in the most thorough way possible,” Nadler said.
Republicans said they believed there was no precedent for the House panel to make such an adjustment for an open hearing outside impeachment.
“The problem is, they can’t bring themselves to impeachment,” Collins said.
The markup turned into a shouting match between Republicans and Nadler over the nature of the proposal, as Rep Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, tried to offer an amendment to Democrats’ motion.
“Kangaroo court!” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, shouted.