Democrats said the foundations of American democracy were at stake Thursday after the attorney general was a no-show at a House hearing, escalating the clash between liberal lawmakers intent on investigating President Trump into impeachment and a White House intent on thwarting them.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Attorney General William P. Barr of lying to Congress in testimony. “That’s a crime,” she noted, though she stopped short of saying he should face charges.
Instead, Democrats are aiming to hold Mr. Barr in contempt of Congress next week should he fail to comply with their demands for an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
A growing number of Democrats have called on Mr. Barr to resign, saying he has become too entangled with defending Mr. Trump and has lost the ability to lead the Justice Department.
Matters boiled over in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, convened a hearing and set out a name tag and empty chair where Mr. Barr was supposed to be continuing his Capitol Hill testimony on Mr. Mueller’s report.
After Democrats changed the rules to add an extra interrogation period by professional lawyers, Mr. Barr said he wouldn’t show.
“The attorney general is as bound as other witnesses to come before the committee, and he cannot dictate to us how we’ll do our job,” Mr. Nadler said.
He taunted Mr. Barr, saying the attorney general was afraid of the prospect of having to answer a sustained barrage of questions.
Democrats said Republicans should join them in their outrage and that Mr. Barr is just the latest person in Mr. Trump’s orbit to try to thwart Congress.
For Mrs. Pelosi, the attorney general failed last month to properly explain his dealings with Mr. Mueller. She said Mr. Barr misled lawmakers when he testified that he and the special counsel were on the same page in his handling of his initial summary of the conclusions.
“The attorney general of the United States was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That’s a crime,” Mrs. Pelosi, the top Democrat in Washington, told reporters.
The Justice Department pushed back.
“Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false,” said spokeswoman Kerri Kupec.
Congressional Republicans said Democrats were engaged in political persecution borne out of their refusal to accept Mr. Mueller’s finding that Mr. Trump did not conspire with Russia and the special counsel’s conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to bring obstruction charges.
They also said Mr. Nadler’s demands were outrageous and soured the chances of cooperation.
“The reason Bill Barr is not here is because the Democrats decided they didn’t want him here,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top-ranking Republican on the committee.
Mr. Barr’s absence did nothing to tamp down the political theater.
Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, brought a bucket of fried chicken to the hearing in an attempt to portray the attorney general as a coward, calling him “chicken Barr.”
Republicans then lodged objections to the way Mr. Nadler has handled the hearing — particularly the vote Wednesday to allow for the extra interrogation period with professional lawyers.
When Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, tried to make a point, the Democratic majority cut off his microphone.
Where things go next is unclear.
Mr. Barr has been consistent in his promises and the lines he has drawn, leaving Democrats with few options other than to hold him in contempt.
He would be the second attorney general to face such a vote. Obama-era Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was cited by a Republican-led House.
It is a rather toothless exercise, said David Rivkin, a Justice Department official during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
“A contempt citation is nothing more than an attempt to attach a stigma,” he said.
The problem for Mr. Nadler, he said, is that Congress can’t initiate a criminal prosecution. It could pursue a civil contempt case, but that would mean either asking the Justice Department to handle the case — which it would likely refuse to do — or trying to bring the case itself.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee tried that route with Mr. Holder, but a federal judge shot it down in 2014.
One other option available to Democrats would be to impeach the attorney general. Some already support that move.
“I think there is only one thing left for us to do, and that is to commence impeachment proceedings against him,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat and a presidential hopeful. “I think we should begin the proceedings to remove the attorney general. He is obstructing in real time right now.”
Impeachment requires only a majority vote in the House, but conviction and removal from office need a two-thirds vote in the Senate — an unlikelihood given the Republican control of that chamber.
The focus on Mr. Barr has, to some extent, siphoned attention away from Mr. Trump, Democrats’ real target.
Mr. Collins said Democrats are trying to run an impeachment proceeding against Mr. Trump without calling it that for fear of public backlash. He said asking for a professional lawyer to take over the interrogation of an attorney general was evidence.
Mr. Rivkin said Mr. Nadler will likely have to choose.
“Congress can do proper oversight or proper impeachment but nothing in between,” he said. “You can’t investigate to impeach. You can investigate while impeaching, but you’ve got to raise the flag of impeachment. Congress has to tell the world what they are doing and why, and they have to pay the political price for it.”
The White House, meanwhile, revealed its objections to Mr. Mueller’s report.
In a letter sent two weeks ago but made public Thursday, White House attorney Emmet Flood said Mr. Mueller engaged in a political prosecution, failed to make his case and then went outside his charge to try to broaden the investigation.
Mr. Flood also slammed Mr. Mueller for pointedly refusing to say whether Mr. Trump should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. He said that is the fundamental duty of a prosecutor.
Instead, Mr. Mueller punted the decision to Mr. Barr.
Mr. Flood, in his letter, said that reduced Mr. Mueller’s work into “part ‘truth commission’ report and part law school exam paper,” and put the president in an unfair position by revealing hundreds of pages of investigative work without any chance for the president to have his say.
“Far more detailed than the text of any known criminal indictment or declination memorandum, the report is laden with factual information that has never been subjected to adversarial testing or independent analysis,” Mr. Flood wrote.
The White House lawyer also pointed out that Mr. Trump, though he allowed his staff to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, has not waived executive privilege, which means he reserves the right to instruct some officials not to testify before Congress.