Shortly after Attorney General William Barr’s Senate testimony ended on Wednesday, the Trump White House convened a conference call with surrogates and media allies. On it, Steven Groves, who serves as a deputy press secretary, assured listeners that the attorney general had not just done “a great job” but, according to a person on the call, “dismembered” Democratic lawmakers who sparred with him over whether the president had tried to obstruct justice.
What had seemed, to most outside observers, as a shaky moment for the administration—with the attorney general peppered as to why Special Counsel Robert Mueller had written him expressing frustration with Barr’s portrayal of Mueller’s findings—was internalized at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a triumph.
“We have Barr’s back,” a senior White House official told The Daily Beast shortly after the Capitol Hill hearing wrapped following hours of testimony. And if there was any doubt that Trumpland was feeling emboldened by the proceedings it was dispelled just hours later, when Barr formally declined to attend a follow-up session with House Democrats on Thursday, citing, in part, his belief that he’d made himself readily available already to lawmakers.
White House officials maintained that the decision to ghost on the House Judiciary Committee was Barr’s alone. But among allies of the president, it was a glorious little F-U to the nattering critics in Congress.
“No, I don’t think [Barr] should appear before House Judiciary—they’re playing games with him,” John Dowd, Trump’s former lawyer in the Russia investigation who still keeps in touch with the president, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “This is the attorney general of the United States. This is a high official of a coequal branch. You don’t treat him that way.”
Congressional Democrats, Dowd added, had been “juvenile” and asked “stupid questions.” Shortly thereafter, the Trump campaign blasted out a fundraising email with the subject line: “Stand With Barr.” Shortly after that, Trump tweeted out a Wall Street Journal oped titled "A Real Attorney General."
Barr’s hearing on Wednesday and his refusal to testify on Thursday mark yet another escalation in the fight between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration over access to, and the interpretation of, the Mueller report. What had started out as a battle over the institutional powers of coequal branches has morphed into name-calling and overt political posturing, with the administration increasingly adopting the position that it simply won’t abide by Congress’ prerogatives.
Barr’s appearance came just hours after The Washington Post reported that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr in March, in which he said that the attorney general’s summary of his report “did not fully capture the context, nature and context” of it. In his opening remarks, Barr addressed his interactions with Mueller leading up to the release of the special counsel’s report. But while he faced some tough questions by Democrats on the committee, Republicans largely gave him cover from the vitriol of his critics.
“I think he was treated disrespectfully,” Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said of the questioning of Senate Democrats. “I thought he did an extraordinary job, was very professional throughout the hearing. What I saw most, out of all of that, was when you lost on the outcome of the investigation and a decision on no underlying crime, no obstruction, then they’re just trying to use it as fodder for as long as they can, I don’t think it lasts very long.”
For all the praise that Barr received from congressional Republicans and within the White House, there was still a looming sense that he would face a different, frostier reception when he testified before the Democratic-run House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
The committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), had pushed for committee lawyers to question the attorney general rather than members of the committee—a request that did not sit well with the Department of Justice. The two sides had negotiated for more than a week in an attempt to come to an agreement about the format of the hearing, its subject matter, and the line of questioning. But those efforts came apart. On Wednesday afternoon, Kerri Kupec, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, released a statement saying that Nadler’s “conditions” were both “unprecedented and unnecessary.” Nadler, in response, said that the committee would decide whether to issue a subpoena to compel Barr to come into testify.
“We are heading for a collision,” one Democratic lawmaker told The Daily Beast.
As Barr was stonewalling House Democrats, the Department of Justice was also blowing past its 10 a.m. deadline to submit the full, unredacted Mueller report to the judiciary committee, which had issued a subpoena for the report several weeks ago. Nadler said on Wednesday evening that the committee is seeking a contempt citation for the report.
The stonewalling from the administration has led to an uptick in meetings between various House committees about how to both compel Barr’s testimony and force President Trump to comply with congressional investigations. One senior Democratic aide said party leadership felt that one way to get Trump to capitulate was to continue using public testimonies by senior officials to “name and shame” the administration with the hope of bringing the focus back to Mueller’s findings.
But some Democrats are already thinking past Barr. On Wednesday, various lawmakers called on Mueller himself to testify, demanding that the Department of Justice officially set a day for such a hearing, which it has so far been reluctant to do.
Mueller’s testimony would be a fireworks display-type ending to a two-year-long investigation. But Democrats also believe that it could open new doors for investigating the president and his family.
For the White House and the Department of Justice, that would prove to be a nightmare, especially as Trump and his team gear up for the 2020 campaign. But it might not be one they can avoid. Several lawyers and former DOJ officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said there is no legal foundation or reason why the department would not allow Mueller to testify even if he is still technically a DOJ employee.
“I don’t see a legal basis on which they could prevent him from testifying,” said Elliot Williams, a the former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legislative Affairs at DOJ, adding that any slow-walking by DOJ is “political if nothing else.”
“I think it is an improbable and politically suicidal for the administration to not have Mueller testify at this point given the enormous public interest in his testimony,” he added.
—With additional reporting by Sam Brodey and Sam Stein