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Attorney General Barr Skips Thursday's House Hearing


The attorney general had a date with the House Judiciary Committee today, but lawmakers wound up looking at an empty chair. William Barr declined to appear after a dispute about the conditions at the hearing. He delivered more than five hours of testimony to the Senate yesterday.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Barr was cavalier and disrespectful. She says he lied earlier this year when he denied knowing about concerns raised by the special counsel team.


NANCY PELOSI: What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That's a crime.

CORNISH: The Justice Department says Pelosi's accusation is, quote, "reckless, irresponsible and false." With us to talk more about the standoff is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: A lot of back and forth today. What were the reasons that the attorney general gave for not coming to this particular hearing?

JOHNSON: Well, Democrats wanted Attorney General Barr to be questioned by staff lawyers, not just members of Congress. And they wanted a copy of that unredacted report written by special counsel Robert Mueller. Remember; that report covers Russian election interference and allegations of obstruction against President Trump. But Bill Barr said no. He did offer a small group of members of Congress the chance to read the report at Justice Department headquarters, but he refused to submit to questions from staff members in the House, which happens to be led by Democrats.

CORNISH: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler cast this fight in broad terms, calling it a tug of war over the power of Congress to conduct oversight. Here's what he said this morning.


JERROLD NADLER: History will judge us for how we face this challenge. We will all be held accountable in one way or the other. And if he does not provide this committee with the information it demands and the respect it deserves, Mr. Barr's moment of accountability will come soon enough.

CORNISH: There is some hint of something in that last sentence in particular, Carrie. What's going on?

JOHNSON: Jerry Nadler says he's going to give the Justice Department a little time - one day, maybe two, no more. Then, he says, holding the attorney general in contempt of Congress is on the table. Normally that process can take weeks, but Nadler seems to mean business here. He wants to move quickly, and he has the support of leader Nancy Pelosi and others. Basically Democrats are arguing this administration is covering up and that the attorney general is part of that. Several lawmakers have called on Bill Barr to resign, but that's not likely to happen.

CORNISH: Now, Bill Barr did testify before the Senate this week. President Trump praised him for that. The White House has been standing behind Barr. Barr also got a boost from Republicans on that Senate Judiciary Committee. How are they reacting?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Republican Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, says this whole fight is just a big show. Here's how he put it at that non-hearing today.


DOUG COLLINS: Instead we go back to a circus political stunt to say we want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won't bring impeachment proceedings. That's the reason.

JOHNSON: And, well, Audie, it's hard to argue there wasn't a circuslike element this morning. Democrat Steve Cohen brought there a bucket of fried chicken into...

CORNISH: I knew the chicken would come up.

JOHNSON: ...The room (laughter). He...

CORNISH: Yeah, it was not subtle.

JOHNSON: He chomped into a drumstick. It was only 9 o'clock in the morning. Cohen was trying to make the point that the attorney general was too chicken to show up. Now, as for impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set a high bar to impeach President Trump. But some Democrats in Congress are raising the prospect they might want to start impeachment proceedings against the attorney general. It's pretty ugly right now.

CORNISH: Put this aside. House Democrats still want to hear from the special counsel himself. Any news on whether Robert Mueller will appear?

JOHNSON: The judiciary committee is trying to work out testimony by the special counsel for May 15, but that date is not final. The terms are not set. Democrats also want to hear from former White House counsel Don McGahn. But in a letter that was just produced today, White House special counsel Emmet Flood seems to be suggesting they could raise objections to McGahn testifying as a former presidential adviser.

CORNISH: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks for your reporting.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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