WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Attorney General William Barr on Thursday of lying to Congress — and called it a crime — escalating the clash between House Democrats and the Justice Department over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Speaking after Barr skipped a House hearing over his objection to its plan to use counsels to question him, Pelosi said, “He lied to Congress. And if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law, not the president, not the attorney general.”
Pelosi was referring to Barr’s response in an April hearing that he wasn’t aware of concerns among Mueller’s team that Barr’s summary was inadequate, even though Mueller had written him on March 27, saying it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report.
But Pelosi said she would leave it to the committee process on whether Barr should be prosecuted and sent to jail for lying.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, “Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the Attorney General is reckless, irresponsible, and false.”
Democrats in both chambers of Congress stepped up their attacks on Barr a day after he criticized Mueller and called his letter of complaint “snitty” as he defended his preview of the Mueller report in a tense and at times contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote Barr a letter asking if he really believed a president could terminate an investigation if he believes that it’s “based on false allegations” — a statement he made in the Senate hearing.
The clash Thursday took place in a broader battle between several House investigations into President Donald Trump and his policies and Trump’s blanket refusal for his administration to submit to committee subpoenas — an act that Pelosi called “obstruction.”
Barr skipped the House Judiciary Committee hearing that he had proposed — balking at being cross-examined by a staff counsel — a day after the Justice Department missed the committee’s deadline to turn over the full unredacted Mueller report and underlying documents.
“If he does not provide this committee with the information it demands, the respect it deserves. Mr. Barr’s moment of accountability will come soon enough,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the committee chairman.
Nadler said he would continue to negotiate to get Barr to testify and for the unredacted report for a couple more days, but added, “We will have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, accused the Democrats of staging “a circus political stunt,” and said, “The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because the Democrats decided they didn't want him here today.”
The 20-minute hearing featured an empty chair with a name tag on the table for Barr. One Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, commented on Barr’s absence by bringing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and putting a ceramic chicken by Barr’s name tag.
Defending his plan for questioning Barr, Nadler said Democrats feel the best way to pin down Barr would be to allow committee members to have five minutes each to question him and then have counsel ask follow-up questions.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Nadler’s reliance on staff counsel to question Barr “a pretty pathetic moment.” She added that, if “he’s not capable of asking the attorney general questions, maybe he should step down or resign.”
Barr is not the first attorney general facing demands for classified records and threats of contempt citations from lawmakers of the opposite party.
In 2011, Republicans accused Attorney General Eric Holder of lying and withholding documents in the flawed gun-running Fast and Furious operation. In 2012 the Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress — a first for a Cabinet member.
After the Justice Department refused to prosecute Holder on the contempt charge, Republicans took their case to federal civil court and won access to additional documents. But despite some key rulings, the case remains in D.C. appellate court.