Democrats are splintered by calls to impeach President Donald Trump. But they have found another common enemy and an alternate political foil in Attorney General William Barr.
Calls for Barr's resignation erupted across the Democratic Party this week after he testified before the Senate and rebuffed the House twice, first by denying Democrats a full, unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, and then by skipping a hearing to review it. In response, Democrats threatened to hold Barr in criminal contempt of Congress — a lengthy legal process that could go on for months.
The feud with Barr has animated Democrats and temporarily shifted attention away from impeachment — and by extension, the party's divisions over whether to pursue it. But with Trump resisting other congressional investigations, and testimony from Mueller likely on the horizon, the impeachment question seems unlikely to subside for long.
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For now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who would lead impeachment proceedings, are putting their emphasis on investigating Trump, his business dealings and his administration. If Democrats do decide to impeach the president, they will have already made part of the case through oversight. Trump's refusal to comply with their requests — with Barr just the latest example — will only strengthen the case.
"Impeachment is never off the table, but should we start there? I don't agree with that," Pelosi said Friday at an event in Medford, Massachusetts.
Pelosi hasn't held back in her criticism of Barr, accusing him of committing a crime by lying to Congress about his communications with Mueller. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called Pelosi's accusation "reckless, irresponsible and false."
Other members of Pelosi's caucus are going after the attorney general in even stronger terms.
"This is serious misconduct, this is a serious effort by the administration to prevent Congress from doing its oversight, and in fact could form the basis by itself of articles of impeachment," said Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, a member of the Judiciary panel, after Barr skipped the hearing Thursday.
Republicans say the Democrats are focusing on Barr as a substitute for impeachment, to avoid the political backlash that would come with official proceedings against Trump.
Nadler "can't try to pacify his liberal base by pretending to do impeachment without actually taking the plunge," said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., called the strategy "impeachment in drag."
The Barr saga appears destined to end up in court. Nadler threatened Friday to hold Barr in contempt if he did not comply with a final request to turn over the Mueller report and the relevant investigative materials. The Justice Department is unlikely to comply, likely prompting a vote of contempt in committee and then the full House.
"The committee is prepared to make every realistic effort to reach an accommodation with the department," Nadler wrote to Barr. "But if the department persists in its baseless refusal to comply with a validly issued subpoena, the committee will move to contempt proceedings and seek further legal recourse."
The Justice Department declined to comment on Nadler's latest threat of contempt. But White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that she believes "at no point will it ever be enough" for Democrats.
While a contempt vote would send a message, it wouldn't force the Justice Department to hand over the report. Nor would it guarantee criminal charges against Barr: House approval of the contempt citation would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the attorney general.
But if the U.S. attorney declines to prosecute, Democrats have other methods to force compliance with witnesses, like hefty fines for witnesses who fail to appear.
Even as Democrats struggle with Barr, they are in hot pursuit of Mueller's testimony. Nadler said the panel was "firming up the date" for Mueller's testimony and hoped it would be May 15. Trump signaled he won't try to stop it. During a brief Oval Office session with reporters Friday, Trump deferred to Barr, saying, "I don't know. That's up to the attorney general, who I think has done a fantastic job."
It's possible that Barr could block Mueller from appearing, since the special counsel is still a Justice Department employee. But Barr has said he has no objection to Mueller testifying.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he doesn't need Mueller to testify to his panel. But he is willing to hear Mueller out on one, narrow matter. On Friday, he offered to let Mueller provide testimony "if you would like" as to whether he felt Barr misrepresented Mueller's views at the Senate hearing.
Barr testified Wednesday that Mueller didn't challenge the accuracy of his memo summarizing the principal conclusions of the special counsel's report, including when they spoke on the phone. Barr made that assertion despite a letter he received in March from Mueller complaining Barr's summary didn't fully capture the "context, nature and substance" of his nearly 400-page report.
Graham invited Mueller to provide testimony "regarding any misrepresentation by the attorney general of the substance of that phone call." He did not specify whether he wanted Mueller to appear in person.