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Barr Snubs House Over Mueller Investigation as Tensions Soar

May 2, 2019, 1:06 AM UTC
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 the actions of President Donald Trump.

Barr denied Democrats in the House their chance to confront him face-to-face, telling the Judiciary Committee he wouldn’t show up Thursday for a scheduled hearing. The Democrats are eager to press their attacks on an attorney general they accuse of acting as Trump’s personal lawyer.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who said he would convene his committee as scheduled, told reporters Wednesday night that Barr is “going to have to answer for apparently testifying untruthfully in the Senate and the House” and that “he is terrified” of being questioned by staff attorneys who work for the panel. Barr had objected to being questioned by staffers, a plan the department said was inappropriate for a Cabinet official.

Nadler said that subpoenaing Barr is a possibility but he still hopes the attorney general decides to show up. It’s unclear what House Democrats can do to force Barr’s appearance, since Congress has limited tools to punish him if he doesn’t comply with a subpoena.

Barr’s decision not to attend the hearing dramatically heightens tensions with the Democratic-controlled committee, which has already authorized a subpoena to the Justice Department to obtain an unredacted version of Mueller’s report as well as the underlying evidence.

Nadler said the Justice Department missed a deadline contained in a subpoena to hand over the full report and the panel may issue a contempt citation.

Nadler also said he hopes to have Mueller testify before the committee on May 15.

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.

The standoff puts Barr 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 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 top Republican on the House Judiciary panel, Doug Collins of Georgia, said Thursday night that in choosing unusual ground rules, “Nadler chose to torpedo our hearing.”

“The attorney general gave clear, informative testimony in the Senate Wednesday, as he offered to do more than a month ago in the House tomorrow,” he said in a statement.

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.