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AG Bill Barr and House Democrats are in a standoff over Mueller report testimony

The attorney general has threatened not to show for a Thursday hearing after Democrats tweaked the question format.

Attorney General William Barr Holds Press Conference To Discuss Release Of Mueller Report
Bill Barr on April 18, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Attorney General William Barr is threatening to skip a House Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday at which he is expected to testify about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and his handling of the investigation.

It’s the latest standoff in an ongoing battle between House Democrats and the Trump administration over Congress’s oversight powers. The White House is vigorously fighting Democrats’ attempts to subpoena documents and compel testimony — and this showdown between Barr and House Democrats hints that neither side is eager to cede any ground.

Barr is reportedly objecting to the format of the questioning proposed by House Judiciary Chair Jerold Nader (D-NY). CNN reported that Nadler would allot the traditional five minutes for House members to interview Barr but also wanted to tack on an additional 30 minutes for committee counsels for both Democrats and Republicans to question Barr directly.

Barr has also objected to Democrats’ proposal to conduct a session behind closed doors to discuss the unredacted version of the report, according to CNN.

Nadler’s proposal to allow committee lawyers to question Barr is unusual — but the committee chair also has the discretion to set the agenda and format for specific hearings.

Departures from the standard question-and-answer structure happen, as they did during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings related to sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In that instance, an outside prosecutor questioned Christine Blasey Ford, one of the women who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Both sides are talking things out on Monday to try to reach an agreement, according to the New York Times — but neither side seems willing to back down.

Nadler indicated to CNN that he planned to push ahead with this original plan. “The witness is not going to tell the committee how to conduct its hearing, period,” he told CNN on Sunday.

Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec told reporters Sunday that Barr is willing to answer lawmakers’ questions — as long as they’re the ones doing the asking. “The attorney general agreed to appear before Congress,” Kupec said. “Therefore, members of Congress should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to engage with members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”

The latest battle between House Democrats and the White House

This showdown echoes the one in February, when the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department faced off about then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s testimony before the committee.

House Democrats voted to authorize a subpoena in case Whitaker refused to answer questions. Whitaker fired back, saying he would refuse to testify if the committee issued a subpoena. After a day of drama, the Judiciary Committee backed off its subpoena threat, and Whitaker showed up.

House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have not subpoenaed Barr, though some have suggested that might be the chair’s next move if the attorney general ultimately refuses the invitation to testify.

That would dramatically escalate the feud between Democrats in Congress and the White House, which are sparring over the Mueller report and oversight more broadly.

Democrats have been extremely critical of Barr’s handling of the Mueller probe, particularly his decision to step in and determine that Trump did not obstruct justice in his initial letter to Congress summarizing the probe’s “principal conclusions,” which was released weeks before the 448-page report was made public.

For these reasons, Democrats are fighting to see the full report and to compel key witnesses to testify. Nadler said his committee has subpoenaed the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report, with the delivery deadline of May 1. It’s asked Mueller himself to testify on May 23.

It’s also subpoenaed Don McGahn, former White House counsel and a key Mueller witness in the obstruction investigation. The White House has made clear it’s fighting any attempts to force McGahn to testify.

Democrats are defending these moves and others — including demanding Trump’s tax returns and subpoenaing Trump’s accounting firm for his personal financial records — as part of their oversight responsibilities.

But the White House and Trump’s attorneys have claimed these are partisan and politically motivated fishing expeditions. The president has said he will challenge “all the subpoenas.”

The battle with Barr hasn’t reached that level yet, and for now, the hearing is still on for Thursday. The attorney general is also still scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the relationship between the Republican-led committee and the Justice Department is just a bit more copacetic.

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