Attorney General William Barr escalated tensions with House Democrats on Wednesday by ignoring their subpoena for the unredacted version of special counsel Robert S. Meuller III’s report and declining to testify before the Judiciary Committee as scheduled Thursday.
The attorney general’s defiance has Judiciary Democrats considering holding him in contempt of Congress.
“It’s time to hold Mr. Barr in contempt for his failure to comply with the subpoena requiring him to produce the unredacted Mueller report to Congress,” panel member David Cicilline said in a statement.
The Rhode Island Democrat, who is also a member of leadership, said Judiciary Democrats will subpoena Barr in an effort to compel his testimony.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler has said only that he may issue a subpoena for Barr to testify. He noted his first priority is getting the unredacted version of Mueller’s report.
“If good faith negotiations don’t result in a pledge of compliance in the next day or two, the next step is seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general,” the New York Democrat told reporters Wednesday.
Nadler appeared to be talking about a criminal contempt citation. But a House effort to do that would only result in a referral to the DOJ for prosecution. Since Barr oversees the department, there’s little chance that would yield any real recourse against him.
That’s why several Democrats have suggested the House consider using its “inherent contempt” authority to enforce its subpoenas. That power would allow them to fine or even jail Barr until he complied with their request.
Since Barr has already defied the subpoena for turning over the unredacted Mueller report and underlying investigatory materials, it’s unlikely he would respond to a subpoena to testify. He had been willing to appear before House Judiciary but raised objections after the panel decided to change the format of the hearing to allow staff to ask questions.
On Wednesday morning, House Judiciary 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.
DOJ 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.
Nadler accused Barr of “trying to blackmail the committee into not following what we think is the most effective means of eliciting the information we need.”
“We cannot permit the administration to dictate to Congress how we operate,” he said.
Barr’s decision not to testify before the House came after Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee aggressively pressed the attorney general on his decisions about the special counsel probe.
Ultimately, the House Judiciary panel may hear from Mueller before Barr. Nadler said he’s currently in talks with the DOJ to have Mueller testify on May 15.
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.