The Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, tired of Attorney General William Barr once again not agreeing to appear before the panel, held Wednesday’s hearing to talk about him anyway.
But their concerns about how Barr has, for more than a year, stymied the Judiciary Committee’s oversight efforts — not complying with a subpoena for the full special counsel report, fighting congressional subpoenas in court, standing them up at a hearing last year, declining to testify earlier this month — got scant mention.
Instead, Democrats focused on witnesses who said Barr in the last year has used the Justice Department for President Donald Trump’s personal and political interests, such as dropping the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said there is injustice at the Justice Department. “He is the president’s fixer,” the New York Democrat said. “He has shown us that there is one set of rules for the president's friends, and then another set of rules for the rest of us.”
And Republicans focused on their view that Barr was fixing the problems of the Obama-era department, particularly the investigation of Flynn.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s top Republican, said Barr “is doing the Lord’s work” trying to clean up the politics. “You guys can continue to play your political games. Bill Barr is going to get to the truth,” Jordan said.
The result was Democrats and Republicans talking past each other for hours.
But the hearing did appear to have at least some effect, as the committee Democrats sought to flex their oversight muscle. At about the same time the hearing started, a Justice Department spokeswoman announced that Barr has agreed to testify at a July 28 oversight hearing.
If that happens, it would end a standoff between Barr and the Judiciary Committee that stretches back to at least May 2019. Barr eventually had agreed to testify March 31, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled that hearing.
Barr then cited the pandemic again when he declined the committee’s invitation to reschedule the hearing for June 9, which prompted Nadler to call Wednesday’s hearing with testimony from two Justice Department lawyers and former officials.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, during his turn to question the witnesses, suggested the House should be prepared to use a subpoena or Congress’ inherent contempt power to fine officials.
“The only attorney general who has not, in modern times, testified before this committee for an oversight hearing is William Barr,” Neguse said.
And Neguse named the last attorney general not to appear before the Judiciary Committee: Barr, when he was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.
“I think it’s important for the attorney general of the United States to come in before this committee and testify,” Neguse said.
The Justice Department sought to avoid a subpoena when it reached out Tuesday to agree on a date for an oversight hearing, a committee spokesman said.
The House already found Barr in contempt of Congress last year in connection with a subpoena for the full report from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Nadler filed legislation to defund Barr’s personal office by $50 million this month.
And at Wednesday’s hearing, Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen called for the impeachment of Barr.
“Even if the ultimate trier, the Senate, is impotent to see the truth and to exercise discretion in keeping with the American public and the rule of law, we should pursue impeachment of Bill Barr because he is raining terror on the rule of law,” Cohen said.
Georgia Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath said Wednesday that she wants to ask Barr about gun control policies and the Trump administration’s current effort at the Supreme Court to wipe out the 2010 health care law.
One witness, Donald Ayer, a former No. 2 official at the DOJ, pointed out in his written testimony that the Justice Department under Barr has helped Trump’s broader effort to stonewall other congressional oversight efforts.
Ayer pointed to litigation to prevent the Judiciary Committee from hearing the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn, to stop the House Ways and Means Committee’s request to the Treasury Department to turn over the president’s tax returns, and to halt committee subpoenas to third-party accounting firms and banks for Trump business and personal financial records.
Trump’s “total stone-walling of Congress’s traditional oversight power, normally exercised through subpoenaing documents and calling witnesses, has only been possible with the complicity of the Department of Justice, in the form of multiple Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and vigorous litigation in the courts,” Ayer wrote.