The Democrats almost got this right. On Wednesday, they shredded what little credibility Bill Barr had left during a five-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that, at times, bordered on a cross examination. By the end of his testimony, Barr’s carefully manicured disdain gave way to thinly veiled wrath. Pushed in the hearing’s closing minutes by Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal—who asked about the just-released letter from Robert Mueller critical of the attorney general’s handling of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference—Barr finally snapped. “The letter’s a bit snitty, and I think it was written by one of his staff people,” he croaked.
It was, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, a slip-up. Barr had spent the day claiming that Mueller hadn’t been mad at him at all, but was instead concerned about the media coverage of Barr’s controversial summary of the report. The “snitty” comment let the cat out of the bag. Barr had been caught spinning—the text of the letter from Mueller, moreover, contained zero references to media coverage of the summary.
That wasn’t the only instance where Democrats caught the attorney general misleading Congress. Barr was also called out for previously testifying that he “didn’t know” what Mueller thought of the summary conclusions Barr drew from the report—even though the just-barely former special counsel had sent two letters objecting to those conclusions two weeks earlier. Barr also appears to have lied when he told Kamala Harris that he didn’t know of any instances in which the president or his allies suggested the attorney general investigate Trump’s perceived political enemies. Hours after the hearing, The New York Times revealed that President Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had pressed Barr to look into dealings between Joe Biden’s son and a Ukrainian oligarch.
The AG’s relentless spinning pushed some congressional Democrats to call him a liar and demand his resignation, a significant escalation from their previous treatment of administration officials—there is some talk now of impeaching Barr.
After Barr’s shaky performance, the attorney general announced he would not appear Thursday for scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. (Barr had previously threatened a no-show when Democrats announced there would be questions from committee counsel.) The attorney general also used the opportunity to formally defy a House Judiciary Committee subpoena requesting an unredacted copy of the full Mueller report.
Barr and his ilk (a group that includes the president, much of the Trump family, cabinet secretaries, and numerous administration officials) seem unfazed in committing their unprecedented defiance. Perhaps that is not surprising, as many of them have lived almost accountability-free lives. A little more surprising, as demonstrated Wednesday, is how much Democrats gain when they hold people like Barr accountable.
It’s a lesson they forgot almost immediately.
Democrats’ response to Barr’s decision not to appear Thursday before the HJC was, to use one of the president’s favorite adjectives, SAD. Borrowing a page from messaging genius Clint Eastwood, that committee held a hearing with an empty chair. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) brought props: A ceramic hen and a bucket of KFC. These, you see, were meant to illustrate that Barr was “chicken.”
Asked about the possibility of holding Barr in contempt, Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler told Barr that he would wait “a day or two” before taking any action. “When push comes to shove, the administration cannot dictate the terms of our hearing in our hearing room,” said the New York Democrat, referencing Barr’s objection to facing questions from committee lawyers. “I hope and expect that the attorney general will think overnight and will be there as well.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, got closer to heart of the matter. “The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress. That’s a crime,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference, suggesting that Barr had committed criminal perjury. But, pressed by reporters about her stance, Pelosi demurred. “There’s a process involved here, and as I said, I’ll say it again, the committee will act upon how we will proceed.” The Democratic position on corruption, perjury, and obstruction of justice now appears to be “trust the process.”
This is a pretty far cry from the days of Watergate, when Senator Sam Ervin, the chairman of the select committee charged with investigating presidential crimes, threatened to have the Senate sergeant-at-arms arrest Nixon administration officials who refused to testify. It’s even a far cry from the performance by the Senate Democrats on Wednesday. History—long passed or very recent—should hold the clues to future action. Four months into the House majority, Democrats should be well past ceramic chickens.
Like with the Watergate hearings nearly 46 years ago, Democrats have better options. The House also has a sergeant-at-arms, and leadership can compel him to arrest officials found in contempt. The House can even jail officials until they testify. Nixon’s aides didn’t let things get that far—that administration quickly changed course when faced with a loss of liberty. But so far, House Democrats have not similarly tested the Trump administration’s mettle.
If Pelosi and Nadler did go this route, it would likely be a controversial and possibly divisive option. But it may be the only way to exercise real oversight. “Sadly, there seems no other way to get Trump to move,” wrote former Labor Secretary Robert Reich before this week’s Barr testimony. “Putting the onus on the Trump administration to get the issue to the court as soon as possible is the only way to force Trump into action, and not simply seek to run out the clock before the next election.”
Democrats’ instinct is to get cute when things get tough. But the time has come, as the Bible says, to put away childish things. Democrats need to show fewer props and more muscle if they want to seriously and thoroughly investigate this administration. As Wednesday’s hearings showed, no one would make a better example then the “snitty,” dissembling attorney general.