From the four-page “Barr letter” and its fatuous conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice to the pre-release press conference in which Barr attempted to spin the report in the president’s favor, the attorney general has been doing damage control. Over the last week, as Trump has said he will fight every request and every subpoena, Barr is now running interference between the Justice Department and the Congress. He is refusing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee unless chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., shelves his plan to have part of the session run by committee counsel and hold a part of the hearing in closed session. Apparently Barr does not like the idea that the legal staff could follow up closely with a line of inquiry. He prefers the disjointed five-minute questioning format that never gets anywhere, which is a sad statement coming from the attorney general of the United States.
If Barr can’t face a committee lawyer, perhaps he’s not really fit to be the top law enforcement officer in the federal government. The Judiciary Committee lawyers interviewed many of the other participants in the Russia investigation, including former FBI director James Comey, in closed session. The only difference with Barr is that this will be a public hearing, which one might expect the self-described most transparent government in history to be happy to accommodate.
Barr has been around long enough to remember all the times that congressional committees had counsel question witnesses, including cabinet members. It most famously happened during the Watergate hearings when lawyers like Sam Dash and Richard Ben-Veniste became national figures, holding the president’s men’s feet to the fire. Chief counsel to the Senate’s Iran-Contra committee, Arthur Liman, led the questioning in that inquiry. And considering that just a few months ago, the Republicans hired an outside attorney to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, it’s entirely absurd that Barr is balking.
Nadler refused to change his plans, explaining patiently that witnesses aren’t allowed to dictate procedure to congressional committees, nor is the attorney general allowed to dictate to the legislative branch. (The Trump administration remains very confused about the separation of powers in general.) Nadler says he’ll issue a subpoena if Barr refuses to show up. There is some talk about holding the hearings with an empty chair which would be very silly and unproductive.
Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported on MSNBC on Monday that Republican sources tell him the Democrats are being “political” and have no right to hold hearings that are impeachment inquiries in all but name. I think we know how to solve that problem, don’t we?