Barr Takes Center Stage in Epic Clash Between White House and Congress

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Attorney General William Barr at his confirmation hearing in January. Photo by Michael Thielen via Flickr

The uproar over Attorney General William Barr’s response to the Mueller report has ratcheted up as leading Democrats accused Barr of the crime of lying to Congress and called for his resignation or impeachment.

National news organizations used epic terms in their coverage of the clash. The New York Times called the interbranch battle “as abrupt and emotionally charged as any in decades.” The Associated Press: “Now Barr has emerged as arguably the most divisive figure in Donald Trump’s administration.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The escalation of rhetoric signaled a newly aggressive phase” in the battle between Congress and the Trump administration, which another of its stories placed in the broader context of a power struggle that could redefine both branches of government. And, according to The Washington Post, “critics say that Barr has emerged as the partisan champion Trump always wanted — one willing to defend the president’s most questionable conduct, put a Trumpian spin on the results of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and mislead Congress along the way.”

The upshot is that any hopes that the Justice Department under Barr might put the tumult of the past two years behind it and settle into the workaday routine have been dashed. With President Trump’s impeachment generally off the table for now, Democrats are “throwing all their pent-up fury at the next best target,” the attorney general in his third month on the job, Politico reported.

Barr’s refusal to testify to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, following his contentious appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee a day earlier, only added to the sense that a constitutional clash has taken shape with Barr at ground zero. Calls that Barr be cited for contempt over the Justice Department’s decision not to honor the House committee’s subpoena competed with the charge by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the attorney general had not told the truth in previous testimony. That testimony concerned the content and timing of Mueller’s complaints over Barr’s portrayal of the report, now that Mueller’s letters to Barr have come to light. “He lied to Congress,” Pelosi said during a news conference Thursday. “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.” Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Pelosi’s comment was “reckless, irresponsible, and false.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would give Mr. Barr “one or two more days” to produce Mr. Mueller’s entire report before initiating contempt proceedings. Committee Democrats were preparing to make the Justice Department a formal counteroffer to stave off another escalation of hostilities.

One analyst who had taken a cautiously optimistic approach to Barr’s role in the Russia probe, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, wrote in The Atlantic that Barr’s performance has turned out “catastrophic.” “Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject,” Wittes wrote.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to secure testimony from Mueller. And it is unclear if Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel whom the committee subpoenaed to testify this month, will show up. The president told Fox News on Thursday he did not want McGahn to testify, noting, “I’ve had him testifying already for 30 hours.”

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