The House Judiciary Committee played to an empty chair on Thursday with a hearing where its witness, Attorney General William Barr, did not appear.
Barr’s absence — which the attorney general made official Wednesday evening — escalated the feud between House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and the Justice Department, where the New York Democrat is threatening to hold Barr in contempt of Congress.
Nadler’s contempt threat isn’t tied to Barr’s failure to appear Thursday, but rather over a subpoena to obtain the unredacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller.
But if the threat of contempt was looming over Thursday’s proceedings, the atmosphere still took on a circus-like show, with lawmakers bringing props and trading insults.
Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, brought in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a ceramic chicken, sharing his food with his Democratic colleagues.
“Chicken Barr should have shown up today and answered questions,” he told reporters while holding the ceramic chicken.
Barr’s absence stemmed from a dispute over whether staff attorneys would be able to question the attorney general in a 30-minute block. After the committee voted to allow it on Wednesday, over Republican objections, the Justice Department told Nadler that Barr would not attend.
The hearing itself lasted just 15 minutes, with opening statements from Nadler and the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, before Nadler somewhat abruptly gaveled out of the hearing. An empty chair was placed at the witness table to denote Barr’s absence.
“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,” Nadler said.
Collins shot back that Nadler made ridiculous demands, and he was to blame for the attorney general’s absence.
“As a result of Chairman Nadler’s desperate tactics, we’ve lost another chance for closure,” Collins said. “Instead, we go back to a circus political stunt. To say, we want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won’t bring impeachment proceedings. That’s the reason.”
Republicans tried to extend the hearing by asking parliamentary questions of Nadler, but he gaveled out the hearing instead. When Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, began speaking up to object to Nadler ending the hearing, his microphone was shut off.
While the empty-chair hearing featured plenty of theatrics, the real fight between Barr and Nadler is over the Mueller report.
Nadler issued a subpoena last month for the full report for Mueller’s unredacted report and the special counsel’s underlying evidence.
Nadler had set a Wednesday deadline, and the Justice Department responded in a letter that it would not comply, charging that the subpoena was “not legitimate oversight” and an “overbroad and extraordinarily burdensome” request.
The Justice Department has argued it made most of the report available publicly, and that a dozen congressional leaders can read a less-redacted report with only grand jury material removed.
But Nadler argued that wasn’t enough, saying that all members of Congress needed to be able to read the full report. Nadler said he would continue to negotiate with the Justice Department over the report, but threatened that he would “have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith.”
That could set the stage for a contempt proceeding in the Judiciary Committee next week. Asked how long he would give Barr to respond, Nadler said: “Maybe Monday, we’ll see.”