Attorney General William P. Barr has been under fire from former colleagues, legal experts, Democrats and anyone else who has taken the time to compare Barr’s initial letter about the Mueller report and his news conference against the actual report. He has been accused of misstating the reason that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not reach a prosecutorial decision on obstruction, of wrongfully inserting himself to make the call that Mueller would not and of refusing to put forth an unredacted version of the report.
But that criticism is nothing compared with the derision that will rain down upon him should he refuse to show up, as he previously promised, to be questioned by the House Judiciary Committee.
The Post reports:
The days-long standoff centers on Democrats’ demand that part of the questioning be conducted by the committee’s lawyers, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Justice Department officials have threatened that Barr may not appear for the hearing under such conditions, while House Democratic staffers have countered that the attorney general may be subpoenaed if he refuses.
The Democratic members of the committee and their staff are as puzzled as anyone why Barr should be throwing a fit over the identity of the questioner. While unusual, allowing counsel to question a witness is hardly unheard of. Indeed, last year Senate Republicans deployed an outside counsel to question now-Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
“The Attorney General of the United States should be capable of appearing on Capitol Hill and responding to any questions,” says former prosecutor Joyce Vance White. “It is, after all, their Constitutional duty to engage in oversight and his to participate in the process. But this Attorney General is so mired in politics and party that he seems to have forgotten about country.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, is prepared to call Barr’s bluff, according to a source familiar with his thinking. “It’s none of the business of a witness to try to dictate to a congressional committee what our procedures for questioning him are,” Nadler told The Post. "It’s not up to anybody from the executive branch to tell the legislative branch how to do our business.”
Democrats believe that Barr has backed himself into a corner, hoping to bully the committee (a tactic perfectly attuned to his boss, President Trump). They are determined not to let him get away with it. If he doesn’t show up, a subpoena will be forthcoming and then a vote on contempt if he does not appear.
Several points should be underscored.
First, this should be a clue to every House committee to ask committee counsel to conduct witness interviews of administration or former administration figures in connection with the Mueller report. There is simply no comparison between the clipped inquiries and dutiful follow-up questions put forward by a trained counsel and the meandering and bloviating performances we get from most committee members.
Second, the appearance or non-appearance of Barr should not affect the House’s decision about formally proceeding to impeachment hearings on Trump. The same factors that counseled in favor of general hearings (e.g., public opposition to impeachment, the need to air the full factual record, the potential for discovering more evidence) still pertain.
However, this should have everything to do with an impeachment proceeding against Barr. Refusing to comply with a valid subpoena (and, worse, instructing a U.S. attorney not to pursue criminal enforcement) would be an act of brazen lawlessness entirely at odds with Barr’s duties as attorney general and his oath of office.
Third, it’s time to put pressure on Senate Republicans to stop rubber-stamping nominees while administration officials snub congressional oversight. The senators — looking at you, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Charles Grassley — must be assured that the rule going forward is that all confirmed nominees are obligated to testify when called for appropriate oversight hearings. So long as Barr is out there daring the committee to subpoena him, no other nominees should go forward. Senate Democrats should warn their Republican colleagues that aiding and abetting the administration’s defiance of Congress will be a major issue for Republican senators in 2020.
Finally, this is downright embarrassing for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, whose department compels testimony from all sorts of witnesses in all kinds of proceedings every day around the country. Barr’s conduct will inspire untold number of witnesses to refuse to appear at grand jury hearings, trials and other proceedings. In the meantime, he looks defensive and hapless.
Appearing on MSNBC, former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal argued: “This is not the way attorneys general behave. It’s not the way Cabinet members behave. It’s not even the way private citizens behave.” It’s a sign of Barr’s abject weakness and fear — fear that he’ll be shown to be a dishonest political hack rather than the country’s top lawyer. Unfortunately, his refusal to appear is already driving home that very point.