WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary was slated to host Attorney General William Barr on Thursday for his second congressional testimony in as many days. But Barr refused to show up, leaving an empty chair with his name placard on it and creating a shouting match between Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee.
The next steps for Barr could be much more serious, as Democrats weigh subpoenas and potentially holding him in contempt of Congress for failing to appear before the committee.
Before the hearing started, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee entered the room with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a miniature chicken statue, which were meant to take a jab at Barr for choosing not to attend the hearing.
While Barr notified the committee on Wednesday he would not be attending, the Judiciary Committee went on with their hearing. Democrats left an empty chair open with Barr’s name placard on it, as is customary for witnesses who fail to show up to congressional hearings.
Democrats wanted additional questioning for Barr, including using staff lawyers for a portion of the hearing instead of lawmakers. But Barr refused to participate in such a hearing, setting off the showdown on Thursday.
“Attorney General Barr has informed us that he will not appear today. Although we worked to accommodate his concerns, he objects to the prospect of answering questions by staff counsel and to the possibility we could go into executive session to discuss certain topics,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said. “Given the attorney general’s lack of candor for other congressional committees, I believe my colleagues and I were right to insist on the extended questions.”
“The very system of government of the United States, the system of limited power, the system of not having a president as a dictator is very much at stake,” Nadler added. “The attorney general of the United States is sworn to uphold the Constitution as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He has an obligation to do everything in his power when the president and the damage he risks, the liability he assumes by directly threatening our system of checks and balances and of limited government. Sadly the attorney general has failed in that responsibility.”
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, characterized it as Nadler’s fault for Barr refusing to attend.
“Let’s be very clear. There is only one reason and one reason only at this point we are not being able to fulfill our constitutional role of oversight and that is the chairman’s demands which have played out yesterday,” he said.
Collins called Nadler’s decision a “circus political stunt” meant to make Barr not attend.
“Yet, since Chairman Nadler insists on delegating questioning to outside counsel rather than trust his deep bench of elected officials appointed to this committee by their peers in Congress, it begs the question, why?” Collins said. “Is the committee worried that one lone witness will eclipse an entire dais of legal talent? That seems unlikely.”
Nadler then concluded the hearing, which prompted several Republicans to shout at him over his handling of the process. Collins said it was a “trampling of minority rights.”
Democrats will have several options on how to compel Barr to testify, but already some lawmakers on the committee are calling to hold him in contempt. Contempt of Congress is a rare but serious matter. It can result in a handful of different penalties, but can carry a maximum punishment of $100,000 in fines or a year in jail.
“Mr. Barr’s failure to obey our subpoena is illegal and he should be held in contempt,” said Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Florida in a statement. “I also support further subpoenas to compel his testimony and I continue to believe Mr. Barr should resign his office in disgrace. He has proven incapable of obeying the oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States.”