What Is Attorney General Barr Afraid Of?

Congress returns from a two-week recess on Monday and first up for the House Judiciary Committee is a hearing scheduled for Thursday on the Mueller report, with testimony from Attorney General William Barr. That might be in doubt due to the fact that Barr is objecting to the format of the questioning.

As we’ve seen in recent hearings, the standard format has been to allow each member of the committee five minutes to question a witness, alternating between Democrats and Republicans based on seniority. The arrangement results in a disjointed exercise in which members pursue different lines of questioning, while witnesses can filibuster to avoid answering.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler plans to go with that format for the first round of questioning. But once every member has had their five minutes, both sides’ committee counsels will have thirty minutes of time in alternating five minute segments. That, and the fact that the committee wants to question him in a closed-door hearing on the redacted portions of the Mueller report, is what the attorney general is objecting to.

“The attorney general agreed to appear before Congress,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “Therefore, members of Congress should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to engage with Members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”

In other words, Barr is threatening to not show up for the hearing to avoid being questioned at some length by the committee’s staff lawyers. He wants to dictate the terms on which he is questioned, which is yet another usurpation of Congressional authority.

To be clear, what Nadler is proposing is not without precedent.

Although allowing staff members to question witnesses is unusual, the committee has permitted it on several occasions in the past, under both Democratic and Republican majorities, according to a spokesman for Mr. Nadler, Daniel Schwarz. This includes during public hearings and private transcribed interviews, like the impeachment inquiries into Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, and the Republican-led investigation into the F.B.I.’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

There is also precedent for having staff lawyers interview cabinet secretaries, Mr. Schwarz said. During the joint House and Senate Hearings on the Iran-contra scandal in 1987, committee staff members questioned both Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. And in 1973, committee staff members questioned James Schlesinger, the C.I.A. director, during a House Armed Services subcommittee inquiry into the alleged involvement of the C.I.A. in the Watergate scandal.

Nadler made his response to Barr clear on Sunday when a senior aide said that “the attorney general can choose to come in voluntarily under the chairman’s framework or risk being subpoenaed at a later date.”

Chairman Nadler not only has the authority to determine the mode of questioning for witnesses, he is doing the right thing by attempting to pursue a coherent line of inquiry with an attorney general who promised transparency during his confirmation hearings, but has done everything possible to obscure the findings of the special counsel.

As an example of what the attorney general was trying to accomplish with those obfuscations, one need look no further than the title of an article by Byron York, which reads: “When Did Mueller Know There Was No Collusion?” That is a logical fallacy known as a loaded question, the quintessential example being, “when did you stop beating your wife?” This particular fallacy rests on the assumption that Mueller found no collusion, something Barr repeatedly said, but was not backed up by the report.

The attorney general misled the American people and fears that, under sustained questioning by the committee’s counsel, that reality will be exposed.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.