WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee excoriated the Trump administration on Thursday for failing to comply with congressional oversight as Attorney General William Barr refused to show up at a hearing on the Russia investigation.
"If we don't stand up to him together, today, we risk forever losing the power to stand up to any president in the future. The very system of government of the United States ... the system of not having a president as a dictator is very much at stake," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also escalated her criticism of Barr on Thursday, saying he broke the law by telling a House committee on April 9 that he wasn't aware of concerns from the special counsel's office that he mischaracterized the Russia investigation's findings.
"The attorney general of the United States was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States," she told reporters at a media conference. "That's a crime."
Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Pelosi's statement was "reckless, irresponsible and false."
Democrats have accused Barr of lying after it was revealed this week that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had written a letter of complaint to the attorney general. During several hours of testimony before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Barr defended his remarks by saying he was only responding narrowly to a question from Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., about media reports referring to unnamed and unhappy members of the special counsel's office.
Barr backed out of Thursday's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee over Nadler's demands that, in addition to members of Congress, the panel's lawyers ask some of the questions.
Kupec said Barr had declined to appear because "Nadler's insistence on having staff question the attorney general, a Senate-confirmed Cabinet member, is inappropriate."
Without Barr attending, the hearing was brief yet combative. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., brought a bucket of KFC chicken to imply Barr was a coward.
"We're not getting that opportunity today because the stunt and the circus continues over here," he said.
Nadler defended his stance Thursday as an empty table with Barr's name on it sat before lawmakers.
"Given the attorney general's lack of candor before other congressional committees, I believe my colleagues and I were right to insist on the extended questioning," he said.
Nadler ended the hearing by saying, "We will make sure that no president becomes a monarch."
As he smacked the gavel, Republicans shouted objections that Nadler ignored.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said it may not be worth issuing a subpoena for Barr's testimony.
"I'm not very interested in what he has to say because he lies, so who knows if we pursue that," she said.
However, she said Democrats should push forward in obtaining more records involving the Russia investigation. They're seeking an unredacted version of Mueller's final report and previously issued a subpoena with a Wednesday deadline. The Justice Department did not comply, and Democrats said they might hold Barr in contempt.
"If the executive branch can willfully violate lawfully issued subpoenas, they will have successfully eliminated congressional oversight," Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said after Thursday's hearing.
He said negotiations were ongoing and if they weren't successful, "the next step will be an effort to hold proceedings to hold the attorney general in contempt."
If Barr does not provide the unredacted report, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said he believes the House Judiciary Committee will hold a contempt vote next week "and I expect that vote will pass."
Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama, was held in contempt by the Republican-controlled House in 2012 when he refused to hand over documents involving the Fast and Furious gun tracking operation. He was the first sitting Cabinet member to face such a step.
Democrats haven't decided how they would punish Barr after a potential contempt vote. Lieu said Congress can levy fines or even detain someone, although he said incarcerating a recalcitrant witness is unlikely.
"I don't think we would do that, but the courts have upheld that power because they understand that in the Constitution you have a system of checks and balances," he said.
Barr testified for five hours before the Senate panel Wednesday, facing a barrage of questions from Democrats about his handling of Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
They criticized the attorney general's conclusion that President Donald Trump hadn't obstructed justice in the matter and accused Barr of distorting the Mueller report's conclusions and the evidence to help protect the president.
They pointed to the newly revealed letter that Mueller sent to Barr on March 27, complaining that the attorney general's summary of the findings failed to "fully capture the context, nature and substance" of the inquiry and contributed to "public confusion about critical aspects of the results."
In response, Barr said the controversy was "mind-bendingly bizarre" because he released the partly redacted 448-page report on April 18, allowing Congress and the public to assess the evidence Mueller assembled.
"I wasn't hiding the ball," he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.