The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barr’s no-show triggers contempt threats, Nixon comparison and more impeachment talk

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said May 2 that Attorney General William P. Barr “lied to Congress” during his Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. (Video: Reuters)

Attorney General William P. Barr’s snub of House Democrats on Thursday has triggered an all-out war between the White House and Congress, pushing the House closer to holding the nation’s top law enforcement official in contempt of Congress and prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to liken President Trump to President Richard M. Nixon.

The almost daily confrontations between the two branches of government increase the pressure on Pelosi (D-Calif.) to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, a politically fraught move that she has resisted in the absence of strong public sentiment and bipartisan support. Many Democrats argue that the 2020 election is the best means to oust the president.

But Democrats are infuriated with Barr, who refused to testify Thursday at the House Judiciary Committee’s scheduled hearing on his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, and Trump’s defiance in the face of multiple congressional requests for documents and witnesses. Democrats cast the administration’s unwillingness to cooperate as a threat to democracy with far-reaching implications.

House Democrats threatened to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress on May 2 for refusing to appear at a Judiciary Committee hearing. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“Ignoring subpoenas of Congress, not honoring subpoenas of Congress — that was Article III of the Nixon impeachment,” Pelosi said of Trump in a private meeting with colleagues, according to notes taken by an individual present for the remarks. “This person has not only ignored subpoenas, he has said he’s not going to honor any subpoenas. What more do we want?”

Pelosi escalated her rhetoric this week as more Democrats press for tough steps to counter the president.

Republicans have insisted that Democrats were simply intent on targeting Trump, unwilling to accept a lengthy investigation that found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I think the Democrats are substantially overreaching,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho), one of the few House Republicans who have criticized Trump in the past. “The problem is they tried to convince the American people that he colluded with the Russians for the last two years and now we find out that’s false. . . . And it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to save our bacon. We’ve got to find something!’ And that’s what they’re doing.”

Republican lawmakers also rebuffed the Democrats’ argument that their moves were to safeguard the powers of Congress and that the GOP had a constitutional responsibility to join them. Trump’s congressional allies — loath to say anything against him — rallied to his side instead.

Appearing at a Washington Post Live event Thursday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) essentially accused U.S. law enforcement of treason during the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Their actions are a coup,” McCarthy said, suggesting anti-Trump bias influenced the origins of the probe. “I do not believe they were abiding by the rule of law.”

The tensions between the Trump administration and Congress could come to a head as early as next week, when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said his panel will probably adopt a contempt citation against Barr unless he provides the full, unredacted Mueller report. 

Nadler had subpoenaed the document and imposed a Wednesday deadline. But Barr has refused to turn it over, with Justice Department officials arguing that the request “is not legitimate oversight.” Barr also declined to testify Thursday, rejecting the Democrats’ plans to have a counsel question him alongside lawmakers.

Democrats cast the snub as more than one witness rebuffing a congressional committee, but rather a threat to democracy that would reverberate long after Trump left office. The president has vowed to “fight all the subpoenas” from Democrats, sued to block compliance by accounting firms and banks, and instructed former and current aides to ignore the repeated requests from Capitol Hill.  

“He’s trying to render Congress inert as a separate and coequal branch of government,” Nadler said. “If we don’t stand up together, today, we risk forever losing the power to stand up to any president in the future.”

The contempt citation against Barr will set up a lengthy legal battle over the Mueller report, as Democrats take the matter to civil court. The issue could take months or years to resolve, as was the case in 2012 when the Republican-led House sued Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” investigation. In 2012, the House also voted to hold Holder in contempt, the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress. 

Capitalizing on Barr’s refusal to show, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee held their hearing anyway in an event that featured all the trappings of a major hearing — TV cameras, armed security guards, lawmakers arrayed on the dais. But in the center of the room sat an empty witness chair behind a name plate for Barr.

Minutes before it started, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) walked into the room carrying a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a plastic chicken. The clicks of cameras suddenly echoed throughout the room as watchers chuckled at his insinuation that Barr was too afraid to show up for questioning.

Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, defended Barr. “I think yesterday he proved he’s not terrified before anybody,” said Collins, noting that Barr testified for about six hours in the Senate. 

Later in the day, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) mocked Cohen on the Senate floor for poking fun at Barr, displaying a photo of the congressman eating chicken. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested Nadler should resign. “Look, we lost confidence in Jerry Nadler a long time ago,” she said.

But Democrats stuck to their argument that Barr didn’t show because he was afraid of their questioning. 

“He didn’t want to come to a chamber where the chairman isn’t going to use his gavel to protect him the way that Senator Lindsey Graham did yesterday,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), referring to the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, before which Barr testified Wednesday.

Democrats also accused Barr of making misleading statements to Congress. During congressional hearings last month, Barr said he was not aware of any concerns Mueller’s team might have expressed about a four-page summary he wrote regarding Mueller’s findings.

That appeared to contradict a letter that surfaced this week in which Mueller wrote to Barr raising concerns that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his investigation.

Barr’s defiant testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday — combined with his decision not to appear before the House and to ignore a House subpoena — appeared to have made a strong impression on Pelosi, who told reporters that Barr “lied to Congress.”

“I really lost sleep last night,” she said, describing viewing Barr’s Senate testimony “over and over again.” “How sad it is for us to see the top law enforcement officer in our country misrepresenting, withholding the truth from the Congress of the United States.”

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Her comments brought a swift rebuke from Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec, who in a statement said Pelosi’s “baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible, and false.”

Although Pelosi was furious with Barr, she saved her sharpest attacks for Trump. At the private meeting, she unloaded: “I think I’m an expert on why he shouldn’t be president of the United States. I think impeachment is too good for him. But one person knows more why he shouldn’t be president of the United States, and that is Donald Trump. And he tells us every single day.”

The comments were a remarkable turnabout less than 48 hours after Pelosi visited the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss a potential infrastructure agreement. Both leaders left the White House beaming about the possibility of a $2 trillion deal and happily noted that Trump had not brought up the Democratic investigations into his campaign, administration, business and family.

But Pelosi allies and those who know her well said she’s getting sick of what Democrats call constant stonewalling from Trump officials. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said “with each passing day we learn more and more about this administration that is deeply troubling” — and so it’s natural for the speaker to become more upset with Trump, he said.

“I know that Pelosi is someone who respects the institutions of our government and is horrified by what she’s seeing unfold,” McGovern said.

Asked whether he was concerned that Pelosi might one day approve a plan to impeach the president, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) — an impeachment skeptic who jokes that “I’m probably going to be the last holdout” against starting proceedings — said even he was getting frustrated.

“I think everybody, including the speaker, is having to adjust to the tenor of the moment, and it keeps getting worse,” he said. “I think she’s just moving with the events. Barr has taken it to a whole new level and if it keeps going like this, it’s going to be to the detriment of the president.”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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