House Judiciary Committee Democrats had two points to make during a Thursday morning hearing with Attorney General William Barr that did not feature Attorney General William Barr.
The first was that his failure to show up and testify about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was a threat to the Constitution and an “attack on American democracy,” in the words of the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler—so much so that it justified the rare punishment of being held in contempt of Congress.
Their second point was more visceral: Barr was being a big chicken.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) entered the committee chambers before nine o’clock clutching a ceramic chicken and a bucket of KFC. After eating several drumsticks, Cohen placed the ceramic chicken on the witness stand, where a nametag for Barr had also been placed.
“Come on, Bill,” Cohen told the chicken. “Let’s go.” It was roughly 9:30 a.m. The nearest KFC did not open until 10:30. Cohen told The Daily Beast he bought the chicken the night before and kept it in his fridge.
Barr, for his part, notably did not “go.” Instead, on Thursday, he was spotted eating lunch at Tosca, a well known restaurant frequented by lobbyists in downtown Washington D.C. A Democratic source who saw him there, wondered how he "didn’t have time for House hearing today but [had]time to be at Tosca for lunch." A DOJ official said Barr was there with a member of his communications team, his solicitor general, and the principal deputy solicitor general and was "otherwise, working in the office on Department matters all day."
The night before, Barr had informed the Judiciary Committee that he would not show for long-scheduled testimony because he rejected Nadler’s demand that staff attorneys from both sides would get 30 minutes to question him, in addition to lawmakers. Hence, the chicken.
“What is the attorney general afraid of?” asked Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), a member of the committee.
The standoff over ground rules may have produced comic visuals and painted Barr is unwilling to subject himself to a different layer of scrutiny for his handling of the Mueller report. But it also scuttled Democrats’ opportunity to conduct questioning of the AG, who had appeared before the GOP-chaired Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It remained unclear on Thursday when Barr would appear before Nadler’s panel to discuss the report, if at all. Lawmakers did not elaborate on the status of negotiations over his testimony.
What is clear, though, is that Barr and Nadler are settling in for a protracted legal battle, setting up difficult choices for Democrats as they decide how far they are willing to go to reveal as much of Mueller’s report as possible and try to hold the president accountable for his conduct during the 2016 election and the lead up to the report’s release.
After the barely-20 minute hearing to highlight Barr’s absence, Nadler told reporters that he will likely move soon to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress for failing to produce an unredacted version of Mueller’s report to the committee. The chairman also said that the next priority was to bring Mueller in to testify, which could happen within the next two weeks.
Other members deferred to Nadler’s judgment, but suggested that they’d run out of patience with Barr some time ago.
“We all believe very strongly that the next step is to begin proceedings to hold the attorney general in contempt,” said Cicilline. “I think we are all pressing our chairman to do that. He is, as he has been, attempting to negotiate in good faith to see if the attorney general will do it voluntarily.”
Congress can move to hold an official in contempt for interfering with lawmakers’ investigations and oversight. But the Department of Justice would be unlikely to enforce a criminal contempt citation against the individual who leads it. While there is recourse through the courts to get Barr to comply with Democrats’ subpoena, lawmakers contend that they could begin imposing fines on Barr soon if he is held in contempt.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) raised another possibility: “In the past they had a House jail,” he told reporters. “I don’t think we’re going to go that far, but courts have upheld that as well.”
Last week, as The Daily Beast reported, Trump’s declaration that he would fight “all the subpoenas” moved some Democrats closer to the step of impeaching the president on the grounds that he was obstructing Congress’ oversight authority. Democratic lawmakers would not say that Barr’s no-show pushed them over the edge, but framed it as part of a pattern of obstruction that could form grounds for impeachment of the president, as well as the attorney general. “Nothing’s on the table or off the table,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
“[W]e should all be mindful of count three of the Nixon impeachment,” Cicilline said, referencing that contempt of Congress was part of that case.
With reporting with Sam Stein