The House Judiciary Committee convened at 9 a.m. despite the fact that the witness chair — where Attorney General William P. Barr was supposed to sit — was empty. After opening statements from the chairman and ranking Republican, it adjourned.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s chairman, gave opening remarks castigating the attorney general and what Democrats are increasingly labeling wholesale obstruction of their inquiries by the Trump administration.
Mr. Barr testified for five hours on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, largely spent defending his handling of the special counsel’s report.
The empty chair where Mr. Barr was supposed to be.
Barr or no Barr, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday. It quickly turned into a show. Before the hearing even began, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, gleefully munched on Kentucky Fried Chicken on the dais as press cameras clicked. The highest law enforcement officer in the country, he said, was a gobbler.
Democrats, seeking to dramatize the attorney general’s absence, set out an empty chair with a name card for Mr. Barr.
“What is he hiding under here?” Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said, miming confusion as he moved the chair around. “Just checking.”
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, lit into his Democratic colleagues for making “ludicrous” demands of the attorney general.
“The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because the Democrats decided they did not want him here today,” he said.
When Republicans tried to prolong the brief session with parliamentary objections, Mr. Nadler gaveled out, cut the microphones, and walked out of the hearing room.
Mr. Barr faced withering criticism in the Senate, but his defense was unflinching
The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee provided a more friendly venue for Mr. Barr to take his first congressional questions since the report’s release, but it was by no means a tranquil session.
Democrats pressed Mr. Barr on a newly revealed letter in which Mr. Mueller complained about Mr. Barr’s initial summary of his findings. They asked him to explain why he did not view specific actions by President Trump to thwart investigators as obstruction of justice. And they excoriated Mr. Barr as “purposely misleading” Congress and the public and even lying to Congress, all in service of insulating Mr. Trump from the consequences of his actions.
Mr. Barr took the punches and did not give ground, agreeing with Republicans that the time had come to review the conduct of investigators and move on.
He called Mr. Mueller’s letter “a bit snitty” and professed amazement that it should even matter after he released, voluntarily, a lightly redacted 448-page report. He defended his legal determinations around obstruction of justice and aspects of Mr. Trump’s behavior. The Justice Department’s job, he said, is to make charging decisions, not to police right and wrong. Congress or voters, he said, are welcome to look at the evidence themselves and pursue other recourse.
“Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false,” Mr. Barr said. “And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite.”
Democrats have hard investigative choices ahead
It was only after the Senate hearing that Mr. Barr formally withdrew from a planned appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, which is led by Democrats. Nearly simultaneously, the Justice Department wrote to the committee to say it would not fulfill its subpoena for the full Mueller report and the evidence behind it because doing so risked undercutting the “confidentiality of its investigations.”
In a statement, Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, called Democrats’ demands that Mr. Barr be questioned by staff lawyers as well as lawmakers “unprecedented and unnecessary,” and their approach “inappropriate.”
Democrats were not eager to back down and pledged to hold their hearing anyway.
“Compliance with congressional subpoenas is not optional, and if good-faith negotiations don’t result in a pledge of compliance in the next day or two, the next step is seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s chairman, told reporters.
The challenge for Mr. Nadler and other House committee leaders is now figuring out how to navigate to secure the material they need for their work. The Judiciary Committee could authorize another subpoena for Mr. Barr’s testimony.
But it then has different paths to escalating its case. Some lawmakers are arguing for opening an impeachment inquiry, which grants the House clearer powers to command information from the executive branch. Others want to hold Mr. Barr in contempt of Congress, a threat that could cajole him into voluntarily giving up more. They could also go to court to try to enforce their subpoenas. Each option has limitations and could slow Congress’s work substantially.
Democrats have still been unable to secure testimony from Mr. Mueller himself. Mr. Nadler said on Wednesday that they were hoping to hold a hearing on May 15, but were still “seeking to firm up the date” with the Justice Department. It is also unclear if Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel whom the committee subpoenaed to testify this month, will show up.
Either way, the attorney general is now in the cross hairs
Mr. Trump may be the ultimate target for Democrats, but Mr. Barr is now officially in their sights.
Dozens of Democrats in Congress, including some running for president, seized on Mr. Mueller’s letter on Wednesday and called for Mr. Barr to resign. “After today’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it is clear that Attorney General Barr lacks all credibility,” said Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the presidential candidates. “The American public deserves an attorney general that will fairly and impartially enforce the law. Barr must resign.”
Those calls are almost certain not to move Mr. Barr, and will most likely please only the president. But the attorney general may soon find himself with another form of threat from Democrats in the House: a contempt of Congress citation. Though not necessarily punitive, a vote to hold Mr. Barr in contempt would put a mark on his record and further inflame tensions between the Justice Department and Congress. While Mr. Nadler signaled that he was not ready to support such a measure, other Democrats on his committee were already there.
“It’s time to hold Mr. Barr in contempt for his failure to comply with the subpoena requiring him to produce the unredacted Mueller report to Congress,” Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Wednesday.