Somehow the republic managed to survive nearly 200 years before what is believed to be the first instance of Congress holding a Cabinet secretary in contempt: Republican Commerce Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were held in contempt by a Democratic-controlled House in 1975. In 1982, a Democratic-controlled House upset with the Reagan administration’s environmental policies launched hearings. Interior Secretary James G. Watt was first found in contempt, quickly followed by EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.
Republicans joined in the fun when they took control of the House for the first time since 1954 during the Clinton administration. They wanted Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate alleged campaign finance violations by the Clinton reelection campaign in 1996. She refused and further refused to turn over memorandums that the FBI director had written recommending such an appointment. Angered by that refusal, the House Oversight Committee voted on a party-line vote to hold Reno in contempt.
President George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, wasn’t held in contempt, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of conflict with Congress. Disputes over the administration’s conduct regarding the Iraq War flowed into attacks on Gonzalez’s conduct in a number of areas. Congressional critics sharply criticized him for his role as White House counsel during the administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques — decried by many as torture — and in the administration’s wiretapping of phone calls without obtaining warrants in the case of suspected terrorist activity. They also attacked him over his role in removing nine U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election for allegedly refusing to pursue politically motivated investigations against Democratic politicians or voter fraud cases. Firmly in control of both houses of Congress after the 2006 midterms, Democrats in the House and Senate committees investigated Gonzalez and alleged that he committed perjury during his testimony. Gonzalez finally resigned in September 2007 rather than face more assaults and perhaps impeachment charges.
The Gonzalez affair even involved the Batman and Robin of the Trump investigations, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and former FBI director James B. Comey. Mueller, then the FBI director, and Comey, who had served as a deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, both testified they intercepted Gonzalez when he entered then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to get Ashcroft to sign off on the White House’s eavesdropping program.
President Barack Obama’s attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. was next in line for such partisan rancor. Republicans retook control of the House after the 2010 elections and immediately began their own investigations into alleged misdeeds and wrongdoing. Their examination of the administration’s “Fast and Furious” program, which allowed guns to be provided to gun smugglers in a bungled effort to implicate Mexican drug cartel bosses, ensnared Holder when he refused to provide documents requested by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Holder became the first sitting attorney general found in contempt of Congress, on a nearly party-line vote in June 2012. Democrats then argued the vote was politically motivated, a claim now echoed by Barr’s Republican supporters.
The bottom line is that party polarization has increasingly turned congressional oversight into a weapon happily wielded by both parties when politically advantageous. Members on both sides of the aisle always seem to interpret administration actions and congressional testimony through a partisan lens, saying their team didn’t lie or break the law and the other team did. As the Church Lady used to say on “Saturday Night Live,” “how convenient.”
You can’t view the current disputes over Barr’s handling of the Mueller report without looking at the politics that drive them. Democrats have been unprecedentedly hostile to Trump since his election. A poll taken immediately after his inauguration found that 62 percent of Democrats wanted to impeach him — before he could possibly have committed a single impeachable act. What we are seeing now is simply the continued unfolding of that desire to remove Trump by any means possible, and Barr is simply in the way.
It’s a shame that Barr is having to endure apparently endless threats of legal action. But he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. He seems to know what most Americans recognize: He’s just the latest sacrificial lamb brought to the political altar to satisfy the lusts of the other party’s vengeful gods.