US attorney general William Barr has skipped a House Judiciary Committee hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia report.
Mr Barr’s decision, made after a disagreement over questioning, escalates an already acrimonious battle between Democrats and President Trump’s Justice Department.
And it comes the day the department also missed a committee deadline to provide it with a full, unredacted version of 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 court battle.
As the hearing opened, lawmakers faced an empty chair with a place card set for Mr Barr.
Democratic members of the committee had fun with the spectacle, placing a prop chicken by Mr Barr’s microphone – to underscore their contention that he was afraid to appear — and jokingly looking under the desk to make sure he was not there.
Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said that if Mr Barr did 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”.
Republicans were not amused by the antics or Mr Nadler’s tough talk.
“The reason Bill Barr isn’t here today is because the Democrats decided they didn’t want him here today,” the top Republican on the panel, Georgia Representative Doug Collins said.
Mr Nadler and the Democrats had demanded that staff attorneys in addition to lawmakers be allowed to question Mr Barr. Mr Barr said he would not attend under that condition.
As Mr Barr refused to testify, Democrats sought to speak to Mr Mueller himself.
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”.
— House Judiciary Dems (@HouseJudiciary) May 2, 2019
The attorney general’s cancellation meant he would avoid another round of sharp questioning after testifying on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats on the panel contended that Mr Barr was protecting Mr Trump after he assessed Mr Mueller’s report on his own and declared there was not enough evidence that the president had committed obstruction of justice.
Mr Mueller did not charge Mr Trump with obstruction but wrote that he could not exonerate him either.
The standoff with the Justice Department is one of several fights House Democrats are waging with the Trump administration.
Mr Trump has vowed to fight “all of the subpoenas” as multiple committees have sought to speak with administration officials or obtain documents relevant to his policies and finances.
Democrats have signalled they will not back down and will take the steps necessary — including in court — to get the White House to comply.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is not interested in impeachment, for the moment. But she said on Wednesday that “the threat of impeachment is always there”.
Mr Nadler and the Justice Department traded barbs on Wednesday shortly after Mr Barr informed lawmakers of his decision on the hearing, with Mr Nadler saying the attorney general was “trying to blackmail the committee” by setting his own terms.
Also weighing in on the matter of who would ask questions was Mr Trump.
“They want to treat him differently than they have anybody else,” the president told Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan on Wednesday night.
He added: “You elect people that are supposed to be able to do their own talking.”
Mr Trump said he heard that Mr Barr had performed “incredibly well” before the Senate panel.
It is unclear whether Mr Barr will eventually negotiate an appearance with the House panel.
Mr Nadler said he would not issue a subpoena for Mr Barr’s appearance on Thursday but would first focus on getting the full Mueller report, likely to include 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.