(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General William Barr escalated his fight with House Democrats eager to question him about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report after spending five contentious hours before a Senate panel defending President Donald Trump’s actions.
Barr denied Democrats in the House their chance to confront him face-to-face, refusing to show up for a scheduled Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday in a protest over the ground rules for questioning. The Democrats, who dramatized Barr’s absence by setting out a placard with his name in front of an empty chair, are pressing their attacks on an attorney general they accuse of acting as Trump’s personal lawyer.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who convened his committee as scheduled Thursday, said “the administration may not dictate the terms of a hearing in this hearing room.”
Barr had objected to being questioned for as long as 30 minutes by staff lawyers, a plan the Justice Department said was inappropriate for a Cabinet official. Nadler said that the extended questioning was justified “given the attorney general’s lack of candor before other congressional committees.”
Representative Doug Collins, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said Barr was willing to testify under a traditional format of questions from members but Nadler and the Democrats were intent on “orchestrating a circus political stunt.”
"Because they wanted it to look like an impeachment hearing, because they won’t bring impeachment proceedings," he said. Nadler adjourned the committee session after 20 minutes, as Republicans demanded time to say more.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has discouraged Democrats from talking of impeachment, at least for the time being, told reporters that she “lost sleep” after watching Barr defend Trump in his testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States,” she said. “That’s a crime.”
In response, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that “Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false.”
For Nadler, the dilemma is what steps he can take next after Barr spurned his committee. He told reporters Wednesday night that subpoenaing Barr to appear is a possibility. But it’s unclear what Democrats who control the House can do to force Barr’s appearance, as Congress has limited tools to punish him if he doesn’t comply with a subpoena.
Barr’s decision not to show up dramatically heightens tensions with the panel. The Justice Department has already missed the deadline in a committee subpoena to hand over an unredacted version of Mueller’s report as well as all the underlying evidence.
“It is urgent that we see the documents that we have subpoenaed,” Nadler said at Thursday’s hearing. He told reporters he’ll give the department “a day or two, period -- maybe by Monday” before seeking a committee vote on contempt of Congress. That could open a lengthy court fight.
On Wednesday evening, the Justice Department confirmed that it had declined to comply with the subpoena for the unredacted report.
“Allowing your committee to use Justice Department investigative files to re-investigate the same matters that the department has investigated and to second-guess decisions that have been made by the department would not only set a dangerous precedent, but would also have immediate negative consequences,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in a letter to Nadler.
Barr has said he wouldn’t object to Mueller testifying before Congress, and Nadler said he hopes the special counsel will appear before the committee on May 15.
But the standoff with Barr puts him squarely in the spotlight -- both for his robust defense of the president and for picking a fight with House Democrats two weeks after releasing the redacted version of Mueller’s report on his investigation into Trump and Russia.
The House should “take the steps" to hold Barr in contempt of Congress, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told MSNBC Thursday.
The Senate hearing on Wednesday was contentious, punctuated by tense exchanges between Barr and some senators. Several Democrats called for him to resign before the day was over.
Barr told senators that none of the actions taken by Trump met the necessary legal requirements to be charged as crimes and proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, including directing his White House counsel to fire Mueller and trying to get the previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to reverse his recusal from overseeing the investigation.
Barr went a step further, saying there’s evidence that Trump was the victim of false accusations.
The president has been dogged “by two years of allegations --- by allegations that have now been proven false,” he said. At various points during the hearing, Barr said Trump was “falsely accused” of colluding with Russians and being a Russian agent, and that the evidence shows the allegation is “without a basis.”
Mueller, however, didn’t report that Trump was falsely accused. Instead, the report said that “while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”
The special counsel’s report also said that “the investigation did not always yield admissible information or testimony, or a complete picture of the activities undertaken by subjects of the investigation.” Mueller’s team noted that some individuals invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, while others provided “false or incomplete” information.
Barr several times described what he thought Trump’s motives were in some of the episodes that Mueller investigated for possible obstruction. Yet Mueller never secured an interview with Trump, who agreed only to answer limited written questions on selected topics. “He never pushed it,” Barr said of Mueller.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, challenged Barr on whether he should recuse himself from overseeing any of the 12 open cases that Mueller referred to other attorneys in the Justice Department.
Barr said he doesn’t see “any basis” for consulting with career Justice Department ethics officials on the appropriateness of his role.
“You’re biased in this situation,” Harris replied. She later used Twitter to call for Barr to resign.
House Democrats had been planning to follow up in Thursday’s hearing. But the Justice Department objected to the format of the planned hearing, which would let the committee’s Democratic and Republican counsels grill Barr for as long as 30 minutes at a stretch after an initial five-minute exchanges with lawmakers.
“Unfortunately, even after the attorney general volunteered to testify, Chairman Nadler placed conditions on the House Judiciary Committee hearing that are unprecedented and unnecessary,” Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Chairman Nadler’s insistence on having staff question the attorney general, a Senate-confirmed Cabinet member, is inappropriate.”
The back-and-forth could set up a protracted legal battle. Courts have reaffirmed Congress’s constitutional authority to issue and enforce subpoenas, but efforts to punish an executive branch official for non-compliance with a criminal subpoena have faced obstacles. In this case, it’s unlikely that the Justice Department would pursue anything against the attorney general.
In a telephone interview with the Fox Business Network on Wednesday night, Trump praised Barr for his appearance before the committee: “He did a fantastic job today, I’m told, I got to see some of it, he did a fantastic job.”
In the end, Barr expressed no regrets for any of his controversial actions since Mueller submitted his final report, and left no doubt that he’ll continue to defend Trump’s actions that the special counsel investigated.
(Updates with Justice Department response to Pelosi in ninth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Alyza Sebenius and Erik Wasson.
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