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Barr Standoff Escalates Confrontation Between White House And Congress

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., (left) laughs with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., after Cohen arrived with a bucket of fried chicken and a prop chicken because Attorney General William Barr did not appear before the committee as requested.
Andrew Harnik
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., (left) laughs with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., after Cohen arrived with a bucket of fried chicken and a prop chicken because Attorney General William Barr did not appear before the committee as requested.

Attorney General William Barr's refusal to appear before the House Judiciary Committee did accomplish one thing, according to Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

"They have succeeded in building a near unanimous sense in the Democratic Caucus that the executive branch of government is in defiance of the Constitution and the rule of law," said Raskin, a former constitutional law professor who sits on both the House Judiciary and Oversight committees.

Barr, already under steady attack from Democrats in both the House and Senate, declined to appear Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee because he did not want to be questioned by committee lawyers, only members. Democrats refused to accommodate Barr because Raskin said there's a bigger constitutional principle at stake. "He doesn't dictate to us how we conduct hearings in Congress," he said.

The Trump administration has made clear they're not going to play nice with Democrats' demands. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler requesting staff lawyers question the attorney general was a "pathetic" moment for the committee. "Look, we lost confidence in Jerry Nadler a long time ago, but it's surprising to find out he's lost confidence in himself," Sanders said.

Democrats need to decide what to do now. Nadler wants to give Barr another shot. "We will make one more good faith attempt to negotiate and to get access to the report that we need and then if we don't get that, we will proceed to hold the attorney general in contempt and we'll go from there," Nadler said Thursday.

On Friday, Nadler made good on that promise. He sent a letter to Barr requesting an unredacted Mueller report by Monday, May 6. If Barr does not comply, Nadler says Barr will face contempt proceedings "and seek further legal recourse."

"Lastly, it cannot go unremarked that, in refusing to comply with congressional oversight requests, the department has repeatedly asserted that Congress's requests do not serve 'legitimate' purposes," Nadler wrote. "This is not the department's judgment to make. Congress's constitutional, oversight and legislative interest in investigating misconduct by the president and his associates cannot be disputed."

Democrats say they are considering all options. Pockets of Democrats are already calling for Barr's impeachment, including Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is running for president. Others, including many of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, have called on him to resign.

There's talk of censure, a type of public reprimand that has little practical effect. Lawmakers are also digging up research on Congress's long dormant "inherent contempt" powers, which haven't been triggered in nearly a century. Taken to the extreme, those powers allow Congress to detain, order arrests and levy punishments. "We're going to use every means at our disposal in order to do our jobs," Raskin said.

Even Speaker Pelosi, who has repeatedly thrown cold water on impeachment talk since Democrats won the majority, reminded reporters Thursday that ignoring Congress had consequences for another president. "As you probably know, in the Articles of Impeachment for President Nixon, Article 3 was that he ignored the subpoenas of Congress, that he did not honor the subpoenas of Congress. This is very, very serious," she said.

She also attacked Barr for what she said was conflicting testimony to Congress about his communications with Mueller, over Barr's handling of the initial summary of the report. A March 27 letter from Mueller revealed this week called in to question Barr's account. "But what is deadly serious about it is the Attorney General of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That's a crime," she said.

A spokesman for Barr called the speaker's comments "reckless, irresponsible, and false."

Not every reaction has been as serious. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., brought a bucket of KFC to the empty hearing room Thursday to make a theatrical point. "Chicken Barr should have shown up today and answered questions," Cohen said. Perhaps sending a message to the administration about what happens when you ignore Congress, Cohen devoured the chicken in front of the cameras.

Increasingly, Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who sits on Judiciary panel, say they're not interested in hearing from Barr anymore. "At this point, I don't believe anything Barr says. So I'd rather have Mueller," she told NPR.

Nadler has invited Mueller to testify on May 15. It's not locked in, but Barr has said publicly that he has no objection to that.

Forecasting another anticipated clash still to come, Democrats also want to hear from former White House Counsel Don McGahn, but President Trump is indicating that he will invoke executive privilege to block any request. "Congress shouldn't be looking anymore. This is all. It's done," Trump told Fox News on Thursday.

Democrats say they are just getting started.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.