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National Security | Attorney general may withdraw from Mueller report hearing over terms of his testimony, House Democrats say
By Karoun Demirjian
General William P. Barr arrives for a news conference at the Justice
Department in April. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
and the Justice Department are in a standoff over the terms of Attorney
General William P. Barr’s planned testimony before the House Judiciary
Committee this week, raising the prospect that the hearing might not go
forward at all.
A senior Democratic committee
aide said Sunday that Barr risks being subpoenaed if he refuses to
testify over his objections to the lawmakers’ desired format for the
Barr is expected to appear before the
Senate and House Judiciary committees Wednesday and Thursday,
respectively, to address questions about special counsel Robert S.
Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. But
according to senior aides for the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler
(D-N.Y.), Justice Department officials have objected to Democrats’ plans
to permit extended questioning, including by the committee’s lawyers,
and threatened that Barr may withdraw.
A Justice Department official said discussions are ongoing.
attorney general agreed to appear before Congress,” Justice Department
spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “Therefore, members of
Congress should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to
engage with Members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”
dispute amplifies what has become a tense political battle between
Democrats and the Justice Department, with lawmakers accusing the
attorney general of maneuvering to protect President Trump by
characterizing Mueller’s findings in an overly sympathetic light.
maintain that statements and letters Barr issued before releasing
Mueller’s redacted report have helped Trump make a case to the public
that the special counsel investigation exonerated him, despite what they
believe to be a wealth of incriminating evidence detailed throughout
the 448-page document. A televised hearing is seen among lawmakers as
their opportunity to hold Barr to account and make their case to the
Daniel Schwarz, a spokesman for
Nadler, said Sunday, “It would be a shame if Barr refused to show up
for the hearing, but it is important that there be a chance to ask
follow-up questions as has been done in the past, and members should not
be prohibited from asking about redacted sections of the Mueller
report, which means we would need to go into executive session in order
for Barr to be able to answer in a secure setting.”
dispute began Thursday, when the committee’s Democratic staff spoke to
the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs about the
intended format for the hearing.
members think it’s important, given Barr’s past testimony and what they
viewed as his attempt to shape the narrative on Mueller’s report, that
he be subjected to extended questioning, including by committee lawyers,
said one congressional aide familiar with the matter, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding Mueller’s
report. Ordinarily, each member gets five minutes for questioning.
lawmakers “have seen administration witnesses filibuster for 4½
minutes, then say something nonresponsive in the last half-minute,” the
aide said. “The Democratic members have been nearly unanimous in their
opinion that circumstances warrant extended questioning, including by
Democrats also want to reserve the
right to vote to have Barr participate in a closed-door session
following his public hearing to address questions about the information
that remains shrouded by redactions in Mueller’s report, aides said.
according to Nadler aides, Barr’s team objected to that proposal as
well and said such a demand would prevent Barr from delivering his
testimony as anticipated.
A Justice Department
official came back to the committee Democrats on Friday “very worked up
about” Nadler’s plan, and said that if the Democrats insisted on
following their plan, Barr “might not come,” the aide said.
chutzpah of telling us how the hearing is going to be structured and
then threatening to walk goes directly to our working thesis that [Barr]
is interested in carrying water for the president but not interested in
providing answers to the public,” the aide said.
committee staff have researched other instances in which committee
lawyers have questioned Cabinet officials during open congressional
hearings, the aide said. The last time was during the 1980s, when
President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, gave testimony
during the Iran-contra hearings, the aide said.
attorney general can choose to come in voluntarily under the chairman’s
framework or risk being subpoenaed at a later date,” the senior aide
Barr and Democrats have long been at odds
over the Mueller report and how the attorney general has handled its
rollout. Many Democrats say Barr misrepresented Mueller’s findings in
his public statements before the report’s release, and the party as a
whole is frustrated that Barr has not taken further steps to ensure that
all members of Congress are able to view the information that was
Barr’s most recent offer was that a
select group of lawmakers, including several committee chairs, be
allowed to view the redacted information, except for passages that cite
grand jury testimony. Democrats have rejected that offer, arguing that
more members and staffers should be privy to the redactions, and that
Barr should assist lawmakers in seeking a court order to release the
grand jury testimony to them.
for committee Republicans said Barr “wasn’t asked to testify before the
committee — he offered.” The attorney general provided the Mueller
report voluntarily and invited Democratic leaders to view a
less-redacted version of the report in person, said the spokesperson,
who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive
“Yet the only thing, apparently,
that will satisfy Democrats, who refuse to read the less-redacted
report, is to have staff pinch-hit when a Cabinet-level official appears
before us,” the spokesperson said. “What actual precedent is there for
our committee making such demands of a sitting attorney general as part
of our oversight duties? The attorney general isn’t a fact witness, and
this committee’s investigations — as Democrat leadership reminds us
daily — don’t constitute impeachment, so Democrats have yet to prove
their demands are anything but abusive and illogical in light of the
transparency and good faith the attorney general has shown our
Matt Zapotosky and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.