House Judiciary Democrats set to grill Attorney General Barr

After seeking his appearance since last year, the committee will have no shortage of questions and topics

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have wanted to question Attorney General William Barr at an oversight hearing for more than a year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have wanted to question Attorney General William Barr at an oversight hearing for more than a year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2020 at 4:27pm

Corrected, 5:30 p.m. | Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have wanted to question Attorney General William Barr at an oversight hearing for more than a year, so they have a dizzying list of controversial topics for what promises to be a highly watched showdown Tuesday.

It will be Barr’s first public testimony before a committee that has some of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken critics, at a time when the nation’s focus increasingly turns to the presidential election less than 100 days away.

Until now, House Democrats have been increasingly frustrated in any effort to force Barr’s compliance with congressional oversight demands. The House already found Barr in contempt of Congress last year in connection with stonewalling oversight attempts.

Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York filed legislation (HR 7109) to defund Barr’s personal office by $50 million in June for defiance of Congress, and committee members have called for Barr’s impeachment or the use of Congress’ inherent contempt power to fine officials.

Last month, the Judiciary Committee spent a hearing focusing on Barr’s actions. Right now, he is the only attorney general in modern times to have never testified before the committee — but that is set to change Tuesday.

His appearance 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 a hearing about Barr last month, with testimony from two Justice Department lawyers and former officials.

Response to protests

Democrats are expected to drill down on their concerns that Barr is misusing the Justice Department with actions that support Trump’s reelection campaign and personal interests, such as Barr’s role in federal officers using tear gas to disperse protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House ahead of a photo opportunity with Trump holding a Bible.

There’s the Trump administration’s expanding use of federal officers in cities such as Portland, Oregon, which committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland dubbed a “banana-republic-style secret police unit,” and the administration’s latest effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census.

There are criticisms about how Barr removed the federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where there are investigations that might affect Trump and his associates, a move that prompted Nadler to say Barr “clearly cares very little about the law.”

Barr has a federal prosecutor investigating the origins of the department’s Trump-Russia investigation and hasn’t ruled out that it could result in criminal charges ahead of the November election.

He also leads a Justice Department that dropped the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and sought a reduced sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone for convictions that include lying to Congress about investigations focused on Trump.

And there’s Trump’s pardon of Stone, which makes it almost certain a committee member will ask about Barr’s comments during his own confirmation hearing that it would be a crime for a president to offer a pardon in exchange for a witness’s silence.

But those are just the events from the past few months.

Health care law, Russia probe

Concerns from committee Democrats stretch back to early 2019, and they still want Barr to answer for what they say was misleading the public about what former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found out about Trump during a 20-month investigation into the 2016 presidential election.

And Democrats want to question Barr about long lists of Justice Department stances in lawsuits that back the Trump administration or the president himself. That includes two cases now at the Supreme Court: the Trump administration’s current legal push to wipe out the 2010 health care law and to prevent the Judiciary Committee from seeing grand jury materials from the Mueller probe.

Barr’s term at the Justice Department also includes an ongoing fight against congressional subpoenas for Trump’s personal and business financial records at the Supreme Court, as well as blocking testimony before the committee of former White House counsel Don McGahn and the release of Trump’s tax returns.

Democrats also have concerns about the Justice Department’s actions when it comes to immigration enforcement, the department’s approach on voting rights in the upcoming election and the way it has interjected itself into legal challenges to COVID-19-related orders from state governors.

Republicans, for their part, will likely focus on their view that Barr is fixing the problems of the Obama-era department and that’s why Democrats are going after him. And Barr, in previous congressional testimony and in television interviews, has vigorously defended his actions.

Correction: This report was corrected to reflect the timing of legislation to cut funding to Barr's office.