WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General William Barr refused to appear Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee for testimony on his handling of the Mueller report, setting up a legal showdown with Democrats that Speaker Nancy Pelosi heightened further by saying that Barr lied to Congress in other testimony.
This morning’s mock hearing lasted just under 30 minutes, on the heels of a contentious Wednesday hearing in the Senate that ended with multiple Democrats calling for the attorney general’s resignation.
Ahead of today’s hearing, the Department of Justice said Barr would not attend since the committee planned on using staff lawyers to question the attorney general.
Given Barr’s authority as a Cabinet member and as the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, the department said the use of those lawyers would be inappropriate. But the use of staff attorneys to lead questioning in Congress is not unheard of.
A similar format for questioning was used last September by Senate Republicans when Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Thursday he will seek to hold Barr accountable and blasted the Department of Justice for failing to respond to a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report.
“The committee will get the information it needs to conduct constitutional oversight,” said Nadler, a New York Democrat. “We will make sure no president becomes a monarchy. We need the information without delay.”
Pelosi fueled the rancor further after the hearing, saying Barr “was not telling the truth” when he testified last month before Congress.
“That’s a crime,” she added.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called the subpoena for the report “inappropriate,” and labeled Pelosi’s words “reckless, irresponsible and false.”
Barr’s failure to appear Thursday prompted much clucking by lawmakers and even spurred one Democrat, Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, to play up Barr’s absence with a bit of symbolism: the lawmaker brought in a bucket of fried chicken and ate a piece, smilingly as he went, before the hearing began. The representative also had a ceramic chicken in tow.
Both items were later put on the table where Barr would have sat.
Condemning both the attorney general and the Trump administration alike, Nadler said he would have “no choice” but to hold Barr in contempt of Congress should he continue to act in bad 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.
The chairman also condemned plans by President Donald Trump to fight all subpoenas issued by Congress.
“The average person is not free to ignore a congressional subpoena and neither is the president,” Nadler said.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, appeared equally miffed Thursday, but placed the blame for Barr’s absence squarely on Democrats.
“The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because Democrats didn’t want him here,” Collins said. “You can disagree with the attorney general all you want, but yesterday he sat for six hours of questions. We’re not getting that opportunity today because the stunt and circus continues over here.”
Collins said minority members on the committee offered to compromise with Nadler around the questioning format and unanimously supported a motion that would have given Nadler and Collins each 30 minutes for questioning, instead of the usual five-minute rounds for each lawmaker on the committee.
But Nadler said Thursday those stipulations were too restrictive.
“I cannot agree to conditions that forbid me from discussing in full with all of my colleagues … this prevents us from taking official action and is no accommodation at all,” Nadler said.
In order for Democrats to obtain the information they seek, the path forward is multipronged. Democrats could begin impeachment proceedings against Barr or they could hold him in contempt, ultimately forcing him to testify.
The lawmakers could also sue Barr for the records outright.
Separately Thursday, Congress agreed to push back a deadline for Deutsche Bank and Capital One to respond to congressional subpoenas seeking access to President Trump’s financial records.
If the subpoenas are successful, they could unearth records going back decades with in-depth information about the president’s assets and tax history.
Trump filed a federal complaint Monday to block the banks from responding to the subpoenas, and U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos scheduled the parties appear in his New York court for a hearing in the case on May 22.
Deutsche and Capital One are expected to filed response briefs with the court before that time.