Bill Barr runs from House Judiciary hearing — will Democrats let him hide?

Attorney general skips House hearing on the Mueller investigation. Time for Democrats to make him pay a price

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 2, 2019 11:40AM (EDT)

William Barr; Jerry Nadler (AP/Getty/Salon)
William Barr; Jerry Nadler (AP/Getty/Salon)

Attorney General William Barr and his fellow Republicans are scared — and they should be. Barr sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to answer questions about special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into Donald Trump's possible ties to a Russian conspiracy to undermine American democracy. Suffice it to say, things did not go well for Barr and his entire cover-up campaign.

Despite the fact that Republicans tried hard to help him control the committee, Barr came across as a dissembling, waffling sleaze  who has sold out his reputation for integrity and independence to shill for a grifter who betrayed his country. This had less to do with the Democrats' mastery of asking questions and more to do with the impossibility of Barr's task, which is orchestrate a cover-up for Trump, a man who oozes the concept of guilt from every sunlamp-baked pore. Of course, there was also the assistance of an anonymous leaker who let the world know, the night before the hearing, how big a liar Barr is when it comes to representing Mueller's views.

So Barr decided that he'd simply skip Thursday's hearing before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, even if that results in images of an empty chair with his name on it being broadcast around the country. Oh sure, there was a complex, nitpicky excuse for why he refused to show up — something, something objections to the format — which ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., gallantly tried to echo by reading the procedural objections into the record with tones of maximized faux outrage. But no one is fooled about what's going on.

Barr is scared. He should, because Democrats do not seem to be messing around. In private caucus, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reportedly told her colleagues that they saw Barr "commit a crime" by lying about the nature of his communications with Mueller — a lie that was exposed by Tuesday's leak and which became the focal point of Wednesday's hearing.

Barr has put himself in an untenable position, in between risking perjury charges for lying to Congress or risking contempt citations for not showing up at all. For now, he's betting that the latter path is the less risky one.

For some reason, option No. 3 — resigning and returning to his comfortable retirement, as helpfully suggested on Wednesday by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii — is off the table, even though it would probably make all of Barr's problems go away.

Perhaps the man whom conservative columnist William Safire described years ago as the "cover-up general" sees working for Trump as the ultimate professional challenge. Pulling off a cover-up for a man as thoroughly and shamelessly corrupt as this guy would be the Sistine Chapel, the Beethoven's Fifth, the "Hamlet" of cover-ups. All other cover-up artists would stand in awe at the feat. While Barr might be remembered as a villain by history, he would, like Joseph Goebbels before him, still be known as a man who excelled at evil propaganda.

Unfortunately for Barr, the task might be too big for even the most genius-y of evil geniuses, if his sweaty performance on Wednesday is any indication. Now he and his co-conspirators are  moving on to phase two: Stonewall and try to see if you can trick people into thinking it's anything but stonewalling.

The main weapon in the effort to spin the stonewalling is faux outrage, accompanied by a hefty sense of entitlement. The line Republicans are trotting out is that they are just totally done with all these pesky questions about Russian election interference, obstruction of justice and efforts to undermine public understanding of the Mueller report — and that, furthermore, it's an outrage that they have to answer questions about why they are sick of answering questions.

When reporters asked Senate Judiciary Committee head Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if he would call Mueller to testify about his point of view of his own investigation, Graham worked himself into an Oscar-worthy huff.

"I'm not going to do any more. Enough already. It's over," Graham pouted, full of wounded pride and feigned exhaustion.

Republicans dearly want the public to believe that Democrats are beating a dead horse by wishing to investigate further not just Trump's relationship with the Russian government, but the efforts to obstruct and cover up the Mueller investigation. This argument seems idiotic to anyone who has actually bothered to read the Mueller report, which is teeming with accounts of shady behavior from Trump and his team, and also the not-small fact that Mueller straight up suggests that Congress can deal with Trump through the "constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct," which are known as impeachment hearings.

But Republicans are counting on the idea that most Americans aren't following the scandal closely, don't understand the extent of Trump's corrupt and likely criminal behavior, and can be fooled into believing that he's been cleared of wrongdoing. Ignorance is the best resource the Republicans have. The less people know about all this the more that void can be filled in wit false claims that Trump has been cleared or that he was "falsely accused," a ludicrous assertion that Barr had the huevos to trot out during Wednesday's hearing.

This is why Republicans field-tested the phrase "Kavanaugh treatment" during Barr's Wednesday hearing. As with their response to the accusations of sexual assault against  Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, they're leaning into this narrative that big, important white men like these guys shouldn't have to deal with criticism, much less serious examination, from the little people they supposedly serve.

This "OMG how dare they?!" stance is apparently pretty convincing to at least one demographic subgroup of Americans: Fox News fans, who consistently show up in the polls believing whatever manure Trump and Republicans are shoveling out. But there's pretty good reason to believe the rest of the country isn't keen on Republicans snarling at peons who dare trouble them with all these questions about whether or not they support Trump's Russian-aided assault on our democracy.

"The choice is simple: We can stand up to this president in defense of the country and the Constitution and the liberty we love, or we can let the moment pass us by," said House Judiciary head Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., during Thursday's abbreviated hearing. "History will judge us for how we face this challenge."

That's a good point, and one that Nadler himself should take to heart. Trump, Barr, and their allies have made their strategy clear: They will refuse all subpoenas and requests for information, and dare Democrats to do something about it. White House shock troops think they can get away with this because they don't believe Nadler and the other Democrats actually have the courage to force the issue by issuing citations for contempt of Congress — and, if it comes to it, ordering the arrest of people who refuse to respond to subpoenas. Which, of course, could and should include Bill Barr.

There's only one way for Democrats to show they won't back down, and that's by not backing down. An image of Barr's empty chair at a hearing is a good way to let the public see the lengths Trump will go to conceal important information from the public. But if Barr actually refuses a congressional subpoena, an image of the nation's top law enforcement official in handcuffs would go a lot further in forcing Americans to wonder exactly what Donald Trump is hiding that led to this.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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