WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr told a House panel on Wednesday that he will not testify about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, raising the prospect that Democrats will hold the nation’s top law enforcement official in contempt of Congress.
Barr, who also missed a deadline for subpoenaed information Wednesday, had been scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday about his handling of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But Barr balked at the committee’s plan to have a committee counsel question him alongside lawmakers, a snub that angered Democrats.
“When push comes to shove, the administration cannot dictate the terms of our hearing in our hearing room,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, chairman of the committee, told reporters. He said the panel would meet as planned and added, “I hope and expect that the attorney general will think overnight and will be there as well.”
Nadler said he would give Barr a “day or two” to turn over the full, unredacted Mueller report in accordance with the committee’s subpoena — information that was due Wednesday morning. But the chairman warned that “if good-faith negotiations don’t result in a pledge of compliance … the next step is seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general.”
Barr’s refusal to appear escalates a fight between President Donald Trump and House Democrats over Congress’ oversight role. Trump has vowed to fight subpoenas from Democrats, sued to block compliance by accounting firms and banks, and instructed former and current aides to rebuff the repeated requests from Capitol Hill.
But now Democrats are just as furious at Barr, whom they’ve accused of putting politics above his duty as the head of the Justice Department.
“Why does the attorney general of the United States continue to apparently view his job as the personal attorney of the president rather than the top law enforcement officer in America?” asked Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida, a panel member.
Congressional Republicans blamed Democrats for Barr’s refusal to appear.
“It’s a shame members of the House Judiciary Committee won’t get the opportunity to hear from Attorney General Barr this Thursday, because Chairman Nadler chose to torpedo our hearing,” said Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec blamed the cancellation on “unprecedented and unnecessary” conditions demanded by Nadler.
“The attorney general remains happy to engage directly with members on their questions regarding the report and looks forward to continue working with the committee on their oversight requests,” Kupec said.
On Wednesday night, in a letter to the committee explaining the ignored subpoena, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd argued that Nadler’s move to compel the DOJ to turn over the unredacted Mueller report “is not legitimate oversight.” Boyd argued that Barr had already made “extraordinary accommodations” to Democrats when he released much of the report, which he was not obligated to do under law, and by volunteering to testify at all.
“Allowing your Committee to use Justice Department investigative files to re-investigate the same matter 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,” he wrote.
The breakdown in talks between the House and Barr followed news that Mueller challenged the attorney general’s handling of the report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Suggestions that Mueller felt Barr misconstrued his findings reverberated in the House, with Democrats accusing Barr of perjuring himself in testimony to Congress.
In back-to-back congressional hearings in early April, Barr said he had no knowledge of Mueller’s concerns with his four-page summary of the report’s findings. But Mueller’s March 27 letter of discontent calls Barr’s testimony into question, Democrats say.
“It seems to me he offered misleading information,” said panel member Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania. “This is a really grave situation that an attorney general would mislead the public, No. 1, and then mislead members of Congress, No. 2. That’s a very grave situation.”
The issue came up during a House Democratic leadership meeting with chairmen on Wednesday. But leaders have not said how they intend to respond, deferring instead to the Judiciary panel.
Asked whether Barr should resign, as some congressional Democrats and presidential candidates have suggested, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said, “I’ll wait and see what happens tomorrow at the Judiciary Committee, but I do think that his comments don’t even live up to the standard that he must have for an attorney general.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told reporters Wednesday that Barr’s handling of the Mueller report is a “very serious matter” and that it appeared he made untrue statements to Congress.
“That was not a truthful response,” Hoyer said of Barr’s suggestion that he didn’t know how Mueller felt about his summary. “I think the first effort ought to be to have Barr explain the discrepancy.”
Barr defended his handling of the Mueller report at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. He downplayed Mueller’s letter complaining about the characterization of his work as “a bit snitty” and suggested it was most likely written by a member of Mueller’s staff.
In one testy exchange, Barr even suggested that Mueller’s opinion on how he handled the report didn’t matter. “It was my baby,” Barr said.
During a pair of closed-door meetings Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, Judiciary Democrats discussed holding Barr in contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena and threatening to skip the scheduled hearing. At one point, according to people in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the deliberations, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, suggested that the committee impeach Barr if it subpoenas him for testimony and he refuses to show.
But the panel eventually agreed that impeaching Barr was likely to distract from its investigations of Trump, the people who attended said, and that if it were to begin impeachment proceedings against an individual, it would probably be Trump. That’s when the group settled on the tentative contempt plan, the attendees said.
The debate over how to handle Barr highlights the predicament House Democrats will find themselves in as they consider ways to reprimand him: Do they try to oust Barr for actions they believe are impeachable? Or do they stay focused on Trump, whom they view as the ultimate prize?
“We are now seeing the attorney general engage in obstruction of a congressional subpoena,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, a member of the committee.
Cicilline later added that “we cannot tolerate as a country to have the chief law enforcement officer of the United States either boldly misrepresent or provide untruthful testimony to congressional committees.”