After a day of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Bill Barr intends to skip a second day of scheduled testimony Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee. Barr is backing out of the hearing because of a plan by the Democrat-chaired committee to allow staff lawyers from both parties to question the attorney general. Both Barr and House Republicans objected to the proposed format, which, in addition to the usual five-minute rounds of questioning from representatives, would have included a 30-minute round for staff attorneys to follow up on the representatives’ questions.* The thinking went: specialized lawyers could do a better job than members of Congress pinning down some of the facts. The Republican thinking went: Yuck, that sounds a lot like a courtroom. The Department of Justice protested that having staff question the attorney general was “unprecedented and unnecessary.” As W. Neil Eggleston wrote in Slate this week, that is very much not the case.
Barr’s refusal to appear injects a new source of acrimony between the Trump administration and the Democrat-led Congress that has been aggressive in using its new majority power to pick up on lines of investigation that were buried on the GOP’s watch. The White House has pushed back hard and filed suit to prevent current and former members of the administration from complying with subpoenas to appear under oath before Democrat-led committees.
The standoff between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Barr had been brewing over the last week. Nadler told CNN Sunday morning that if Barr refuses to show, “then we will have to subpoena him, and we will have to use whatever means we can to enforce the subpoena.” Adding to the standoff is the fact that the Judiciary Committee deadline for Barr to produce an unredacted version of the Mueller report to Congress was 10 a.m. Wednesday. That was likely to, ahem, come up in the House hearing the following day. There now is an increasing likelihood that Barr will not only refuse to testify but will not give members of congress full access to the unredacted Mueller report.
That raises the possibility that Democrats could hold Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate. “Democrats have discussed holding Barr in contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena and threatening to skip the scheduled hearing, according to several lawmakers and officials familiar with the plan,” the Washington Post reports. “During a pair of closed-door meetings Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, the committee decided that it would probably make a push for a Barr contempt citation if he refuses to testify Thursday or ignores their subpoena for the full, unredacted report by Mueller.”
“We are now seeing the attorney general engage in obstruction of a congressional subpoena,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the committee, said Wednesday “Congress has a number of tools at its disposal, obviously beginning with holding him in contempt.”
Correction, May 1, 2019: This post originally misstated that senators would question Barr. Representatives do the questioning during House hearings.