US congressional Democrats blast Barr, threaten to hold him in contempt

US Attorney General William Barr is facing a possible contempt from congress over the Mueller report. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: A senior US congressional Democrat on Thursday threatened to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for resisting demands for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report on the Russia inquiry, and accused President Donald Trump’s administration of a “growing attack” on democracy.

House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said he was prepared to begin a process that could lead to fines or imprisonment for Barr after the top US law enforcement official failed to appear for a hearing on the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, also accused Barr of lying to Congress, and said neither the attorney general nor the Republican president are above the law.

“That’s a crime,” Pelosi said, though she did not specify the comment to which she was referring.

Democrats have accused Barr of misleading Congress by testifying in April that he did not know whether Mueller agreed with his initial characterisation of the report, failing to mention a March 27 letter from the special counsel complaining that Barr’s initial public summary did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work.”

Nadler had set a Wednesday deadline for Barr to hand over the unredacted report and its underlying evidence.

Barr canceled his testimony after clashing with Nadler over the hearing’s format. Nadler said he will move forward with a contempt citation as soon as Monday.

“We will make one more good-faith attempt to negotiate and to get the access to the report that we need, and then if we don’t get that, we will proceed to hold the attorney general in contempt,” Nadler told reporters after a 15-minute committee session held in place of Barr’s appearance.

Democrats have said they may issue a subpoena to try to force Barr to testify before their committee.

‘Attack’ on democracy

Nadler’s comments indicated that the Democrats, who control the House, are prepared to escalate a showdown with Trump’s administration, which has resisted their demands for documents and information on a wide range of topics, from Trump’s taxes to his businesses.

Several Democratic lawmakers have called on Barr to resign. ‘Attack’ on democracy “The failure of Attorney General Barr to come to the hearing today is simply another step in the administration’s growing attack on American democracy and its attack on the right of Congress” as a co-equal branch of government, Nadler said.

Nadler said Trump wants to prevent Congress from providing any check on his conduct.

“The very system of government of the United States, the system of limited power, the system of not having a president as a dictator, is very much at stake,” Nadler said.

Barr spent four hours before a Republican-led Senate committee on Wednesday defending his handling of Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the election to boost Trump’s candidacy and whether the president subsequently tried to obstruct Mueller’s probe.

Representative Doug Collins, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, said Barr did not appear before that panel because Nadler had insisted on an aggressive format with an extra hour of questioning from its own lawyers, in addition to those from the committee’s lawmakers.

“They want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won’t bring impeachment proceedings,” Collins said.

Democrats are debating whether they should begin the process laid out in the Constitution for removing a president from office, which would start in the House but would require the Republican-led Senate to vote to oust Trump, an unlikely prospect.

Barr released Mueller’s report on April 18, with some parts blacked out to protect sensitive information.

The report detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow and the campaign’s expectation that it would benefit from Russia’s actions, which included hacking and propaganda to boost Trump and harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The report also detailed a series of actions Trump took to try to impede the investigation.

Mueller, a former FBI director, concluded there was insufficient evidence to show a criminal conspiracy and opted not to make a conclusion on whether Trump committed obstruction of justice, but pointedly did not exonerate him.

Barr has said he and Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, then determined there was not enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction.

Barr is under fire for how he characterised the Mueller report’s main conclusions in a letter to lawmakers on March 24, weeks before the report was released. Trump seized on Barr’s summary to declare he had been fully exonerated.