Barr’s empty chair foreshadows the constitutional struggle ahead

Barr skipped the House hearing Thursday because he objected to the format of the hearing allowing committee staff to ask questions

An aide adjusts the name plate for Attorney General William Barr before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on Russian Interference in the 2016 election and the Robert Mueller report on Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
An aide adjusts the name plate for Attorney General William Barr before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on Russian Interference in the 2016 election and the Robert Mueller report on Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 2, 2019 at 10:10am

The House Judiciary Committee went forward with a hearing on the special counsel report Thursday without scheduled witness Attorney General William Barr, his empty seat at the witness table a sign of a broader separation of powers battle ahead.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the challenge we face is that the president of the United States wants desperately to prevent Congress — a coequal branch of government — from providing any check whatsoever to even his most reckless decisions,” Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in an opening statement.

[White House suggests Nadler should quit after Barr no-shows House Judiciary]

“The challenge we face is that if we don’t stand up to him together, today, then we risk forever losing the power to stand up to any president in the future,” Nadler said.

Loading the player...

Barr, who testified for about five hours about the Mueller report before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, declined to show up for the parallel House hearing Thursday because he objected to the format of the hearing that would allow committee staff to ask questions.

The Justice Department also told the committee that it would not comply with a congressional subpoena for an unredacted version of special c ounsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report and underlying investigative material.

[Democrats learning their subpoenas are only as powerful as Trump allows]

Nadler did not reveal anything new about what steps Democrats might take next. He said the committee “will have no choice but to hold the attorney general in contempt” of Congress if Barr does not negotiate in good faith for Congress to get that information.

The hearing lasted only a few minutes. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., put a chicken figurine in front of him and ate fried chicken before the hearing, a nod to his view that Barr was too chicken to show up and take questions from committee staff.

But Nadler struck a serious tone, and cast the moment as one where Barr, Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to come together to stand up to President Donald Trump in defense of the Constitution and Congress’ oversight role.

Nadler said every member of the committee should know the consequences for the administration ignoring a lawful subpoena, calling it an “act of obstruction” that lawmakers can’t hold the executive branch responsible for waste or enact legislation no matter which party controls the White House.

Loading the player...

“I do not know what Attorney General Barr will choose. I do not know what my Republican colleagues will choose,” Nadler said. “But I am certain that there is no way forward for this country that does not include a reckoning with this clear and present danger to our constitutional order.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican, said that the only reason Barr wasn’t testifying Thursday was that Democrats insisted on allowing staffers to ask Barr questions.

“Instead, we go back to a circus political stunt,” Collins said.

[Trump already forging campaign path to rebuild 2016 electoral map]

Collins said that if committee staff wants to ask questions, they should run for Congress, put a pin on and join a committee. Nadler said the attorney general and president don’t get to dictate to the committee how it will run its hearings.

“Ordinarily at this point I would introduce the witness, but instead we will conclude the proceedings,” Nadler said, ending the hearing by ignoring a request from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to be recognized.