House Democrats Push Barr to Submit to a Lawyer’s Questioning

WASHINGTON — House Democrats signaled on Monday that they would press ahead with plans to have staff lawyers question Attorney General William P. Barr on Thursday, despite his threat to skip the much-anticipated hearing on the work of Robert S. Mueller III if Democrats stick by that format.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, announced a Wednesday committee vote on whether to allow lawmakers to turn over a half-hour of questioning per side to staff lawyers, an unusual arrangement for such a high-stakes hearing, though not one that violates any rules. Democrats are expected to easily win the vote, raising pressure on Mr. Barr to give up his demand that the questioning come only from lawmakers.

The confrontation between the committee and the attorney general has been weeks in the making, and is part of a broader escalation of hostilities between the Trump administration and the Democratic-controlled House. The conclusion in recent weeks of the investigation by Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, and the expansion of House Democrats’ investigations into Mr. Trump’s business and his presidency have only caused tensions to flare.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are seeking to jump-start their investigation into possible obstruction of justice, abuse of power and corruption by the Trump administration and hope that a lengthy block of time given to staff lawyers will sharpen the focus of Thursday’s hearing. Whatever the outcome, Mr. Barr is still expected to appear a day earlier, on Wednesday, to testify before the more Republican-friendly Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department declined to comment on Mr. Nadler’s announcement on Monday, and an aide for the Judiciary Committee said the two sides had not communicated about the hearing since Sunday, when Mr. Barr publicly reiterated his preference for having lawmakers ask all the questions.

Democrats took the dispute public on Sunday after, they said, Mr. Barr threatened not to appear for the hearing under the terms outlined by Mr. Nadler. In addition to disagreeing over who will question him, Democrats say the attorney general has also objected to Mr. Nadler’s plan to allow the committee to move into executive session — clearing the hearing room and turning off the television cameras — if necessary to discuss classified or other sensitive material.

Mr. Nadler, appearing on CNN on Sunday morning, said he would be willing to subpoena Mr. Barr if he refused to appear voluntarily. “The witness is not going to tell the committee how to conduct its hearing, period,” he said.

Both sides have reason to hold to their respective positions.

Democrats believe that by turning the questioning over to professional lawyers with extended blocks of time — Republican and Democratic staff lawyers would have 30 minutes of continuous questioning if they choose rather than alternating between Democrats and Republicans in five-minute blocks, as is customary — they will be able to extract more information from Mr. Barr and more easily press him with follow-up questions.

The format is traditionally used by both Republicans and Democrats for deposition-style interviews with congressional witnesses conducted behind closed doors but has only rarely been deployed in public hearings, particularly for cabinet officials. The Senate Judiciary Committee used a similar format last year to question Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Republicans, though, say that case and others are not analogous and that the precedent identified by Democrats does not apply to the Judiciary Committee’s current proposal. Mr. Barr is not a fact witness in an investigation, they say, and they argue that it is disrespectful to make the attorney general take questions from staff members “as if he is being interrogated.”

Still, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are likely to seek to use a similar arrangement in the coming weeks for planned hearings with Mr. Mueller and Donald F. McGahn II, a former White House counsel who was a central witness for Mr. Mueller’s obstruction of justice inquiry.

For Mr. Barr, there may be advantages to continued defiance. If he skips the Thursday hearing, the Judiciary Committee would most likely issue a subpoena to compel him to testify. But subpoenas are difficult to enforce, especially against the Justice Department, and it could be weeks or months before Democrats succeed in getting Mr. Barr on the witness stand under their terms. The intervening time could significantly slow their investigation and deliberations over impeaching Mr. Trump, and spare Mr. Barr at least one session in front of a hostile Democratic-led panel.

Mr. Barr’s testimony is not the only point of dispute between House investigators and the Trump administration.

Democrats are also struggling to get the Justice Department to commit to scheduling a hearing with Mr. Mueller. Mr. Nadler formally invited the special counsel to testify almost two weeks ago, but a committee aide said that the department has repeatedly said it is too busy to settle on a date before Mr. Barr’s testimony is complete. With his work as special counsel completed, Mr. Mueller is expected to leave the Justice Department soon, which could complicate matters.

They are also waiting to see what happens with another key witness, Mr. McGahn. Mr. Nadler issued a subpoena last week to compel him to produce documents and to testify, but White House lawyers said they would ask Mr. McGahn and other potential witnesses to defy the committee.

Then there is the Mueller report itself. Mr. Barr turned over a redacted copy of the 448-page document to Congress on April 18. But Democrats have demanded access to the full report, without portions blacked out, and the underlying evidence that Mr. Mueller collected, issuing a subpoena that set a May 1 deadline for their production.

Members of Mr. Nadler’s staff and Justice Department officials were expected to speak on Monday afternoon about access to the requested material.

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