The battle between congressional Democrats and the Justice Department over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report has reached new levels of vitriol, as some on the left call for Attorney General Bill Barr to be physically dragged in to testify or even locked up for defying congressional subpoenas.
Though he testified a day earlier on the Senate side, Democrats on the committee still want to bring in the DOJ leader to answer questions on the conclusion of Mueller's investigation. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., also imposed a Monday morning deadline for Barr to turn over the full, unredacted Mueller report and additional files -- a deadline the DOJ apparently missed, prompting Nadler to schedule a Wednesday vote on contempt proceedings against Barr.
Committee member Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., over the weekend urged the panel to specifically pursue “inherent contempt,” calling for Barr to be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and be physically brought before the committee to testify—a tactic reportedly not employed since the 1930s.
“I think they will stonewall at all costs,” Cohen told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, adding that the situation “leaves us no other alternative than to have our Sergeant at Arms bring him in. He is being utterly contemptuous of Congress. He lied to the Congress.”
Inherent contempt, which allows a person to be held until they provide testimony, is one of three contempt options available, along with criminal contempt (under which an individual is charged with a crime) and civil judgment (leading to a civil court process)
Cohen added: “You have to have him sit for a hearing and you have to have him locked up until he agrees to participate and come to the hearing.”
Cohen said that he did not know what the committee would do but argued that without pursuing that avenue, a congressional contempt citation would be “meaningless.”
The DOJ has not publicly responded to Cohen's warning, though a spokeswoman fired back last week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Barr of committing a crime by allegedly lying in prior testimony. The DOJ called the attack "reckless, irresponsible and false."
Still, the scenario Cohen suggested has thus far not been entertained by higher-ranking Democrats. Cohen -- who drew mockery last week for bringing a KFC bucket to the no-show hearing, eating fried chicken in full view of press cameras and placing a toy chicken by Barr's empty seat in order to suggest Barr is, himself, like a chicken -- even suggested the contempt scenarios might not produce much action.
“It shows we want to hold him in contempt, but that fact is, he won’t be held in contempt because the Justice Department is not going to enforce a contempt citation against their boss,” Cohen explained. “It’s just not going to happen. Trump and Barr would fire whoever tried to do it.”
But Cohen isn’t the only one on the left calling for such a drastic measure.
Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich penned an op-ed last week titled "Congress should be ready to arrest Bill Barr if he defies subpoena."
“[T]he House can order its own sergeant-at-arms to arrest the offender, subject him to a trial before the full House, and, if judged to be in contempt, jail that person until he appears before the House and brings whatever documentation the House has subpoenaed,” Reich wrote in the op-ed for Salon. “Congress hasn’t actually carried through on the threat since 1935 — but it could. Would America really be subject to the wild spectacle of the sergeant-at-arms of the House arresting an Attorney General and possibly placing him in jail?”
“Probably not,” he wrote. “Before that ever occurred, the Trump administration would take the matter to the Supreme Court on an expedited basis.”
Reich also said that Trump’s alleged “contempt for the inherent power of Congress” is “the most dictatorial move he has initiated since becoming president.”
Another column in The Week, titled "William Barr is in contempt. Congress should send him to jail," discussed a similar scenario.
“And there's a simple solution for the House to enact if Barr really doesn't show up: Formally hold him in contempt of Congress, then send him to jail,” Joel Mathis wrote. “That's a radical suggestion, but this is a radical moment.”
Meanwhile, most prominent Democrats have argued instead that Barr should resign amid the controversy.
“He lied to Congress. And if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime,” Pelosi told reporters. “Nobody is above the law. Not the president of the United States. Not the attorney general.”
Pelosi’s public comments came after she, according to Politico, told Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., during a private caucus meeting Thursday: “We saw [Barr] commit a crime when he answered your question.”
She was referring to an April 9 hearing, where Crist had asked whether Barr knew what prompted reports that prosecutors on the special counsel team were frustrated with his initial summary. Barr said he did not.
But last week, The Washington Post first reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller contacted Barr, both in a letter and in a phone call, to express concerns after Barr released his four-page summary of Mueller’s findings in March. Mueller pushed Barr to release the executive summaries written by the special counsel’s office.
However, according to both the Post and the Justice Department, Mueller made clear that he did not feel that Barr’s summary was inaccurate. Instead, Mueller told Barr that media coverage of the letter had “misinterpreted” the results of the probe concerning obstruction of justice.
Pelosi, last week, was asked if Barr should go to jail for the alleged crime.
“There is a process involved here and as I said, I’ll say it again, the committee will have to come to how we will proceed,” Pelosi said.