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Sunday 22 September 2019

US attorney general to skip session with House Democrats on Mueller report

William Barr faced sharp questioning after testifying on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Attorney General William Barr testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday (Susan Walsh/AP)
Attorney General William Barr testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday (Susan Walsh/AP)

By Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

US attorney general William Barr has informed the panel on the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee that he will skip Thursday’s hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

Mr Barr’s decision — he cites a disagreement over the questioning — comes the same day the Justice Department missed a committee deadline to provide the panel with a full, unredacted version of Mr Mueller’s Russia report and its underlying evidence.

Those moves are likely to prompt a vote on holding Mr Barr in contempt, and possibly the issuance of subpoenas — bringing House Democrats and the Trump administration closer to a prolonged battle in court.

Even though Mr Barr informed the panel he will not be coming, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said he will still hold the hearing on Thursday morning, raising the prospect of an empty witness chair.

“I hope and expect the attorney general will think overnight and will be there as well,” Mr Nadler said.

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Attorney General William Barr testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill (Susan Walsh/AP)

As Mr Barr refused to testify, Democrats sought to speak to Mr Mueller himself.

Mr Nadler said the panel hoped the special counsel would appear before the committee on May 15 and the panel was “firming up the date”.

The attorney general’s cancellation meant he would avoid another round of sharp questioning after testifying on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats on the panel charged that Mr Barr was protecting President Donald Trump after he assessed Mr Mueller’s report on his own and declared there was not enough evidence that Mr Trump had committed obstruction of justice.

Mr Mueller did not charge Mr Trump with obstruction, but wrote that he could not exonerate him, either.

The standoff with the Justice Department is one of several fights House Democrats are waging with the Trump administration.

Mr Trump has vowed to fight “all of the subpoenas” as multiple committees have sought to speak with administration officials or obtain documents relevant to his policies and finances.

Democrats have signalled they will not back down and will take the steps necessary — including in court — to get the White House to comply.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she was not interested in impeachment, for the moment. But she told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “the threat of impeachment is always there”.

Mr Nadler and the Justice Department traded barbs shortly after Mr Barr informed lawmakers of his decision on the hearing, with Mr Nadler saying the attorney general is “trying to blackmail the committee” by setting his own terms.

Mr Barr had objected to the format of the hearing after Democrats decided to let staff attorneys conduct a round of questioning after lawmakers were done.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the staff questioning is “unprecedented and unnecessary”.

Also weighing in on the matter of who would ask questions was Mr Trump.

“They want to treat him differently than they have anybody else,” the president told Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan on Wednesday night, adding, “You elect people that are supposed to be able to do their own talking.”

Mr Trump said he heard that Mr Barr had performed “incredibly well” before the Senate panel.

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Senator Lindsey Graham holds up a copy of the Mueller report (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It’s unclear whether Barr will eventually negotiate an appearance with the House panel.

Mr Nadler said he would not issue a subpoena for Mr Barr’s appearance on Thursday but would first focus on getting the full Mueller report, likely including a vote holding Mr Barr in contempt of Congress.

While a contempt vote would make a strong statement, it is unlikely to force the Justice Department to hand over the report.

A vote of the full House on contempt would send a criminal referral to the US attorney for the District of Columbia — a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the administration’s interests.

But even if the US attorney declines to prosecute, Democrats could pursue other avenues in court.

In a letter sent to the committee late on Wednesday, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd laid out a list of reasons that the department will not provide the full Mueller report or all the underlying evidence.

Mr Boyd said the special counsel’s investigative files include “millions of pages of classified and unclassified documents, bearing upon more than two dozen criminal cases and investigations, many of which are ongoing”.

Mr Boyd also reiterated that the department would not disclose secret grand jury material, another battle that could end up in court if Mr Nadler decides to fight it.

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