WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr skipped a House hearing Thursday on special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia report, escalating an already acrimonious battle between Democrats and President Donald Trump's Justice Department. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Barr had already lied to Congress in other testimony and called that a "crime."
Barr's decision to avoid the hearing , made after a disagreement with the House Judiciary Committee over questioning, came the day after the department also missed the committee's deadline to provide it with a full, unredacted version of Mueller's report and its underlying evidence. In all, it's likely to prompt a vote on holding Barr in contempt and possibly the issuance of subpoenas, bringing House Democrats and the Trump administration closer to a prolonged battle in court.
Democrats convened a short hearing that included an empty chair with a place card set for Barr. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said that if the attorney general doesn't provide the committee "with the information it demands and the respect that it deserves, Mr. Barr's moment of accountability will come soon enough."
Shortly afterward, Pelosi increased the tensions further. In a reference to the attorney general's testimony last month, Pelosi said Barr "was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States — that's a crime."
At a hearing on April 9, Florida Rep. Charlie Crist asked Barr about reports that members of Mueller's team believed he had failed to adequately portray their findings in a four-page memo that was released before the full report.
Crist asked at the hearing, "Do you know what they are referencing with that?" Barr responded, "No, I don't," and went on to say Mueller's team probably wanted "more put out" about what they had found.
Democrats have raised questions about that testimony since it was revealed this week that Mueller had written Barr two weeks earlier, on March 27, complaining that the attorney general's memo "did not fully capture the context, nature and substance" of his work.
Barr said Wednesday his answer was not misleading because he had been in touch with Mueller, rather than members of his team, and that the concerns were mostly about process and not substance. Within minutes of Pelosi's comments, Justice Department Spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called her words "reckless, irresponsible and false."
Pelosi also said the administration's refusal to respect subpoenas by a House committee is "very, very serious" and noted that ignoring congressional subpoenas was one of the articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon.
As Democrats portrayed Barr as untruthful, they sought to speak to Mueller. Nadler said the panel hoped the special counsel would appear before the committee on May 15 and the panel was "firming up the date."
It's unclear whether Barr will eventually negotiate an appearance with the House panel. Nadler said he wouldn't immediately issue a subpoena for Barr's appearance but would first focus on getting the full Mueller report, likely including a vote holding Barr in contempt of Congress.
While a contempt vote would make a strong statement, it is unlikely to force the Justice Department to hand over the report. A vote of the full House on contempt would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the administration's interests. But even if the U.S. attorney declines to prosecute, Democrats could pursue other avenues in court or even issue fines against witnesses who fail to appear.
"In the past they had a House jail," said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary panel. "I don't think we're going to go that far, but courts have upheld that."
At Barr's no-show hearing, Democratic members of the committee had fun with the spectacle, passing around fried chicken and placing a prop chicken by Barr's unused microphone to underscore their contention that he was afraid to appear. One lawmaker jokingly looked under the desk to make sure Barr wasn't there.
Republicans were not amused by the antics or Nadler's tough talk.
"The reason Bill Barr isn't here today is because the Democrats decided they didn't want him here today," said the top Republican on the panel, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins. Nadler had demanded that staff attorneys, in addition to lawmakers, be allowed to question Barr. Barr said he wouldn't attend under that condition.
The attorney general's cancellation meant he would avoid another round of sharp questioning after testifying Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats on the panel contended that Barr was protecting Trump after he assessed Mueller's report on his own in the early memo and declared there wasn't enough evidence that the president had committed obstruction of justice. Mueller didn't charge Trump with obstruction but wrote that he couldn't exonerate him, either.
Barr strongly defended himself against those criticisms and also Mueller's, saying at one point that Mueller's March letter to him was "snitty."
The attorney general's confrontational approach is in line with the White House, which argued in an April 19 letter that Trump has the right to instruct advisers not to testify before congressional oversight probes. The letter from White House legal counsel Emmet Flood to Barr, which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, argues that Trump would, if necessary, assert executive privilege to prevent advisers from testifying.
Trump has vowed to battle "all of the subpoenas" as multiple committees have sought to speak with administration officials or obtain documents relevant to his policies and finances. The president, his business and his administration have already filed lawsuits to prevent the turning over of Trump's financial records and have declined to comply with a deadline to provide his tax returns.
Democrats have signaled they won't back down and will take steps — including in court — to get the White House to comply.
But advisers to the president have suggested that any legal fight, even one that ends in defeat, would likely extend well into the 2020 campaign and allow them to portray the probes as political.
In the April letter, Flood blasted the Mueller report as defective and political. He called the 448-page report a "prosecutorial curiosity — part 'truth commission' report and part law school exam paper."