WASHINGTON — Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are discussing holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, according to several lawmakers and officials familiar with the plan.
During a pair of closed-door meetings Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, the committee decided that it would likely make a push for a Barr contempt citation if he skips a scheduled Thursday hearing or ignores their subpoena for the full report by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Lawmakers and officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private deliberations, cautioned that no final decision has been made. Barr has until the end of the day to hand over the full Mueller report but is not expected to comply.
Barr last Friday threatened to ignore the Judiciary Committee hearing over objections to the format in which a counsel would question him along with lawmakers. As of noon Wednesday, the committee has yet to receive an answer about whether he is coming, panel officials said.
“We are now seeing the attorney general engage in obstruction of a congressional subpoena,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the committee. “Congress has a number of tools at its disposal, obviously beginning with holding him in contempt.”
The discussions about contempt for Barr follows the disclosure that Mueller challenged the attorney general’s handling of the report on Russia interference in the 2016 election. The news reverberated in the House, with Democrats accusing Barr of perjuring himself in testimony to Congress.
In back-to-back congressional hearings in early April, Barr claimed to have no knowledge of Mueller’s concerns with his four-page summary of the report’s findings. But Mueller’s March 27 letter of discontent call Barr’s testimony into question, Democrats say.
The issue came up during a House Democratic leadership meeting with chairmen on Wednesday. But leadership has not said how they intend to handle the issue.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that Barr’s handling of the Mueller report is a “very serious matter” and that it appeared he made untrue statements to Congress.
“That was not a truthful response,” Hoyer said, declining to say what steps should be taken to address it. “I think the first effort ought to be to have Barr explain the discrepancy. And so, we need to find out what Barr’s explanation for what clearly appears to be on its face a untrue statement, that Barr either knew or certainly should have known was not true, and I think we ought to proceed from there – get that explanation.”
Barr was testifying about his handling of the Mueller report at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday and was slated to do the same in the House on Thursday.
In light of the Mueller’s concerns about Barr’s summary of the report and his expected refusal to turn over the full report, the House panel might push for contempt of Barr even if he shows up Thursday.
“I think it’s going to depend on how he handles the questions … we might,” said panel member, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.
Following the Mueller letter, several Democrats have called on Barr to resign or even be impeached. But behind the scenes, Judiciary Democrats were discussing impeaching Barr or holding him in contempt even before the latest news.
At the closed-door meeting Tuesday evening, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., suggested the committee impeach Barr if they subpoena him for testimony and he refuses to show.
Barr is not technically under subpoena to testify on Thursday. Democrats have considered issuing a subpoena if he refuses to come in.
But after a back-and-forth, the panel agreed impeaching Barr would likely distract from their investigations of President Donald Trump and that if they were to begin impeachment proceedings against an individual, it would probably be Trump. That’s when the group settled on the tentative contempt plan, officials said.
The debate over how to handle Barr highlights the predicament House Democrats will find themselves in as they consider ways to reprimand him: do they try to oust Barr for actions they believe are impeachable? Or do they stay focused on Trump, whom they view as the ultimate prize?