Congress

Barr will be a no-show at House Judiciary Committee

AG objects to staff asking questions about special counsel probe

Attorney General Bill Barr testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the “Department of Justice’s Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election” on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General William Barr will not appear as scheduled before the House Judiciary Committee about the special counsel probe Thursday, as he objects to a format that would allow committee staff to ask questions, the Justice Department announced.

Earlier Wednesday, the House panel approved a plan to allow an extra hour of time — divided into equal 30-minute, unbroken segments for each party — for either lawmakers or committee staff to ask questions.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that conditions placed on Barr to testify were “unprecedented and unnecessary” and that having staff question the attorney general was “inappropriate.”

“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,” she said.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., responded, saying the committee has the right to determine its procedures and called Barr’s refusal to testify part of the administration’s “complete stonewalling of Congress.”

The Justice Department's announcement came after Democrats aggressively pressed the attorney general on his decisions about the special counsel probe during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but for the most part teased out little emotion or new information from the Washington veteran.

About four hours after Barr started testifying Wednesday, he sat stone-faced as Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie K. Hirono upbraided him for seven minutes for his actions around the release of the special counsel report.

“Now the American people know you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people who sacrificed their once decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” Hirono began.

As she went on, Barr sipped from a cup in front of him. He sipped again. He adjusted his glasses. And at the end, Barr countered one of Hirono’s questions with his own question to clarify her question.

“I think you know what I’m talking about, please,” Hirono said. “Please, Mr. Attorney General, you know, give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on around here with you.”

It was an exchange that typified the high-profile hearing about Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report and Barr’s conclusion that President Donald Trump would not face criminal charges for obstruction of justice.

Barr’s nonresponse to one question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse left the Rhode Island Democrat and former U.S. attorney bewildered. “I can’t even follow that down the road,” Whitehouse said. “Boy, that’s a masterful hairsplitting.”

As Republicans on the panel generally came to Barr’s defense — Sen. Mike Lee of Utah thanked him for his “civility and composure amidst what has been a needlessly and unfairly hostile environment” — the more senior Democrats delved deep into the legal analysis behind episodes that Mueller laid out in the report.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel, was among those who dug into specific episodes laid out in the Mueller report of potential obstruction of justice by the president, such as Trump telling Don McGahn, who was White House counsel at the time, to have Mueller removed as special counsel.

While the Mueller report found evidence that “supports the conclusion” that Trump committed a crime, it did not make a recommendation. Barr repeated several times that his conclusion was that the government would have had difficulty proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the president had a corrupt intent.

The more junior members took a more aggressive approach toward Barr, and sometimes prompted flashes of the gruff and annoyed side of the attorney general.

After an exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris about the evidence against Trump in the Mueller report, the California Democrat told Barr that, “I think you’ve made it clear, sir, that you’ve not looked at the evidence and we can move on.”

As she did, Barr spoke over her to say, “I’ve seen a lot of prosecutions and declinations in my day.”

By the last exchange of the day, Barr showed no signs of his confidence waning as Democrats landed no big shots against an attorney general they accused of acting more like the president’s personal lawyer.

One big potential criticism was the revelation Tuesday of a letter Mueller wrote Barr to say that Barr’s four-page memo to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation.

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote to Barr in the letter released by the Justice Department on Wednesday morning. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told Barr his March 24 summary obscured Trump’s inappropriate actions and worked to protect the president for several weeks “rather than give the full truth to the American people, as I now believe Special Counsel Mueller was urging you to do.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called that letter remarkable. Barr replied the letter was “snitty” and suggested someone on Mueller’s staff wrote it. He told Blumenthal that someone at the Justice Department took notes about a phone conversation Barr and Mueller had about that letter, and then was defiant about them.

“May we have those notes?” Blumenthal asked.

“No,” Barr replied.

“Why not?” Blumenthal said.

“Why should you have them?” Barr replied.

Coons was among several Democrats to call for Mueller to testify before the committee, but Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made it clear to reporters after the hearing that he did not have a reason to invite Mueller.

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