US Attorney-General William Barr told a House panel that he will not testify about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, raising the prospect that Democrats will hold the nation's top law enforcement official in contempt of Congress.
Barr had been scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow about his handling of Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But Barr balked as the committee wanted a counsel to question him alongside lawmakers, and congressional Republicans blamed the Democrats.
"It's a shame members of the House Judiciary Committee won't get the opportunity to hear from Attorney-General Barr ... because Chairman (Jerrold) Nadler chose to torpedo our hearing," said Representative Douglas Collins, the panel's top Republican.
Democrats have discussed holding Barr in contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena and threatening to skip the scheduled hearing, according to several lawmakers and officials familiar with the plan.
During a pair of closed-door meetings yesterday and today, the committee decided that it would probably make a push for a Barr contempt citation if he refuses to testify or ignores their subpoena for the full, unredacted report by Mueller.
Lawmakers and officials cautioned that no final decision has been made. Barr was supposed to hand over the full Mueller report today.
"We are now seeing the Attorney-General engage in obstruction of a congressional subpoena," said Representative David Cicilline, D, a member of the committee. "Congress has a number of tools at its disposal, obviously beginning with holding him in contempt."
Discussions about contempt for Barr follow the disclosure that Mueller challenged the Attorney-General's handling of the report on Russia interference in the 2016 election.
The news that Mueller felt Barr misconstrued his findings reverberated in the House, with Democrats accusing Barr of perjuring himself in testimony to Congress.
In back-to-back congressional hearings in early April, Barr claimed to have no knowledge of Mueller's concerns with his four-page summary of the report's findings. But Mueller's March 27 letter of discontent calls Barr's testimony into question, Democrats say.
"It seems to me he offered misleading information," said panel member Representative Madeleine Dean, D. "This is a really grave situation that an attorney-general would mislead the public, No. 1, and then mislead members of Congress, No. 2. That's a very grave situation."
Another panel member Congressman Ted Deutch, D, agreed: "My reaction [to the March Mueller letter] was: Why does the Attorney-General of the United States continue to apparently view his job as the personal attorney of the president rather than the top law enforcement officer in America?"
The issue came up during a House Democratic leadership meeting with chairmen today. But leaders have not said how they intend to respond, deferring instead to the Judiciary panel.
Asked whether Barr should resign, as some congressional Democrats and presidential candidates have suggested, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "I'll wait and see what happens tomorrow at the Judiciary Committee, but I do think that his comments don't even live up to the standard that he must have for an attorney-general."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D, told reporters that Barr's handling of the Mueller report is a "very serious matter" and that it appeared he made untrue statements to Congress.
"That was not a truthful response," Hoyer said of Barr's suggestion that he didn't know how Mueller felt about his summary. "I think the first effort ought to be to have Barr explain the discrepancy."
Barr defended his handling of the Mueller report at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today. He downplayed Mueller's letter complaining about the characterisation of his work as "a bit snitty" and suggested it was most likely written by a member of Mueller's staff.
During the often tense hearing, Barr frequently clashed with Senate Democrats. In one testy exchange, Barr even suggested that Mueller's opinion on how he handled the report didn't matter anyway.
"It was my baby," Barr said.