Attorney General William Barr skipped his scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, in protest over the Democratic majority’s decision to let committee lawyers ask some of the questions.
President Donald Trump and his congressional defenders claimed it was “unprecedented” to have people other than members ask questions — forgetting that Senate Republicans did the same just months ago as they examined sexual predation allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Barr was set to appear before the committee to discuss special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report from his nearly two-year long probe into Russian election meddling. Barr has been criticized for acting as Trump’s personal defense attorney, and for misleading Congress about the results of the investigation, which detailed the extensive ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, and at least 10 instances involving Trump that may have constituted obstruction of justice.
On Thursday, Republicans lashed out at attempts to hold Barr to account.
“[This hearing is] a circus political stunt, to say we want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won’t bring impeachment proceedings. That’s the reason,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the top Republican on the committee, during Thursday’s truncated hearing, at which Barr was not present. (An empty chair was used in his stead.)
“The reason bill Barr is not here is because the Democrats decided they didn’t want him here today,” he added, claiming Democrats had treated the minority and the attorney general badly.
Trump himself denounced the decision one day prior, in an interview with Fox Business. “I guess they want to treat him differently than they have anybody else, and for many, many years they have never done it this way, where they’re bringing in outside counsel or something,” he said. “That’s not the way – you know, you elect people, they’re supposed to be able to do their own talking.”
Democrats have defended the decision to have lawyers question the attorney general, however, claiming the pushback is part of an attempt to stop Congress from “providing any check whatsoever to [the president’s] most reckless decisions.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the challenge we face is that the president of the United States wants desperately to prevent Congress, a co-equal branch of government, from providing any check whatsoever to his most reckless decisions. He is trying to render congress inert as a separate and co-equal branch of government,” House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said Thursday morning.
Using lawyers for questioning at congressional hearings is not unprecedented. During both the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, Congress used committee counsel or staff to question witnesses, largely without objection.
More recently, Republicans themselves called upon lawyers to question a witness, even taking things a step further and hiring outside counsel to carry out the task.
In perhaps the most-watched congressional hearing in decades — the Senate Judiciary Committee’s September 2018 examination of sexual assault allegations by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh — the Republican majority relied on Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor from Arizona, to grill Blasey Ford. The decision resulted in a choppy back and forth hearing, during which Mitchell was allowed to ask Republicans’ questions in five-minute intervals.
Barr gave widely panned testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, fielding questions on his handling of the Mueller investigation and previous misleading testimony he gave before Congress earlier in the year. He was also asked about several conversations between himself and Mueller regarding Mueller’s concerns with his messaging, as well as his decision to press forward with misleading rhetoric vindicating Trump against Mueller’s objections.
The hearing prompted Democrats to call for Barr’s resignation. Following his decision not to appear on Thursday, some questioned their next steps, setting the stage for a possible subpoena.
If he is forced to testify, it’s possible Barr may refuse, joining a growing number of examples of the Trump administration ignoring Congress’ authority as a co-equal branch with a constitutional responsibility for oversight. The administration has refused to comply with several subpoenas for documents and witnesses in the last few weeks alone, and has moved to run out the clock with lengthy court challenges.
If Barr does refuse, Democrats could hold him in contempt, Nadler said Thursday.
“The challenge we face is that if we don’t stand up to him together today, we risk forever losing the power to stand up to any president in the future,” he said.
This article has been updated to include more recent comments from Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA).