Leading Democrat Nancy Pelosi has accused attorney general William Barr of committing a crime by lying to Congress.
Mr Barr skipped a House of Representatives hearing on Thursday on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia report, escalating an already acrimonious battle between Democrats and President Donald Trump’s Justice Department.
Mr Barr’s decision to avoid the hearing, made after a disagreement with the House Judiciary Committee over questioning, came the day after the department also missed the committee’s deadline to provide it with a full, unredacted version of Mr Mueller’s report and its underlying evidence.
In all, it is likely to prompt a vote on holding Mr Barr in contempt and possibly the issuance of subpoenas, bringing House Democrats and the Trump administration closer to a prolonged battle in court.
Democrats convened a short hearing that included an empty chair with a place card set for Mr Barr.
Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said that if the attorney general does not provide the committee “with the information it demands and the respect that it deserves, Mr Barr’s moment of accountability will come soon enough”.
Shortly afterwards, House Speaker Ms Pelosi increased the tensions further. In a reference to the attorney general’s testimony last month, Ms Pelosi said Mr Barr “was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States — that’s a crime”.
At a hearing on April 9, Florida Representative Charlie Crist asked Mr Barr about reports that members of Mr Mueller’s team believed he had failed to adequately portray their findings in a four-page memo that was released before the full report.
Mr Crist asked at the hearing: “Do you know what they are referencing with that?” Mr Barr responded, “No, I don’t,” and went on to say Mr Mueller’s team probably wanted “more put out” about what they had found.
Democrats have raised questions about that testimony since it was revealed this week that Mr Mueller had written to Mr Barr two weeks earlier, on March 27, complaining that the attorney general’s memo “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of his work.
Mr Barr said on Wednesday his answer was not misleading because he had been in touch with Mr Mueller, rather than members of his team, and that the concerns were mostly about process and not substance. Within minutes of Ms Pelosi’s comments, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called her words “reckless, irresponsible and false”.
— House Judiciary Dems (@HouseJudiciary) May 2, 2019
Ms Pelosi also said the administration’s refusal to respect subpoenas by a House committee is “very, very serious” and noted that ignoring congressional subpoenas was one of the articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon.
As Democrats portrayed Mr Barr as untruthful, they sought to speak to Mr Mueller.
Mr Nadler said the panel hoped the special counsel would appear before the committee on May 15 and the panel was “firming up the date”.
It is unclear whether Mr Barr will eventually negotiate an appearance with the House panel. Mr Nadler said he would not immediately issue a subpoena for Mr Barr’s appearance but would first focus on getting the full Mueller report, likely including a vote holding Mr Barr in contempt of Congress.
While a contempt vote would make a strong statement, it is unlikely to force the Justice Department to hand over the report.
A vote of the full House on contempt would send a criminal referral to the US attorney for the District of Columbia — a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the administration’s interests.
But even if the US attorney declines to prosecute, Democrats could pursue other avenues in court or even issue fines against witnesses who fail to appear.