The attorney general stands accused of acting as the presidents personal lawyer rather than a guardian of the constitution
Moments before a highly anticipated congressional hearing at which the star witness, the attorney general William Barr, was no longer expected to appear, Representative Steve Cohen placed a porcelain chicken on the dais.
It was 9am and Barr was officially a no-show.
Hes here, Cohen said, gesturing toward the decorative fowl. Chicken Barr.
The gag added a rare drop of humor to a situation that was described by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, as deadly serious and which other leading Democrats have warned threatens democratic norms and even paves a road to tyranny.
In the weeks since special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Barr has become a lightning rod for criticism from Democrats furious with his handling of the report. The House judiciary committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, cast Barrs absence on Thursday as part of the administrations growing attack on American democracy.
Warring between the two branches of government escalated further on Friday when Nadler set a 9am deadline on Monday for Barr to comply with a subpoena to turn over an unredacted version of Muellers report and the underlying evidence. If he refuses, Nadler said his committee would initiate proceedings to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress.
Pelosi, too, intensified her rhetoric this week, as pressure mounts on the Democratic leadership to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump in light of the administrations refusal to cooperate with any congressional investigations.
At a press conference on Thursday, she said Barr was acting as Trumps enabler and accused the attorney general of committing a crime by lying to Congress.
Republican lawmakers, decrying political theater, insist Democrats are simply unwilling to accept the findings of Muellers investigation, which found insufficient evidence to conclude that Trumps campaign conspired with Russia.
Theyve read the report. They dont like what is in it, said the Republican congressman Doug Collins, the ranking member on the House judiciary committee.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, dismissed calls for Barr to resign and suggested that pathetic Nadler should step down instead.
Barr defended his handling of the release of the Mueller report during an appearance before the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday that did little to convince critics that he was acting as the nations chief law enforcement officer and not as the presidents legal counsel.
Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, but he laid out episodes involving the president that appeared to meet the bar. In the report, Mueller explained that investigators did not determine whether Trump committed a crime because the justice department had previously said sitting presidents cannot be indicted.
In Barrs initial summary to Congress, before the public release of Muellers report, he did not provide this context and wrote simply that the special counsel had not reached a conclusion and therefore left it to the attorney general to decide that there was no evidence to support obstruction.
When asked whether Muellers team had concerns about his portrayal of the special counsels work, Barr told back-to-back congressional panels last month that he was unaware of any. This appears to contradict a letter from Mueller to Barr that surfaced this week, in which he raised concerns that the attorney generals initial summary did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of his investigation.
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