WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday accused Attorney General William Barr of the crime of lying to Congress, further escalating a bitter feud between House Democratic leaders and the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

“He lied to Congress,” Pelosi said of Barr during a news conference. “The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That’s a crime.”

Pelosi’s accusation stemmed from a response from Barr during a congressional hearing last month. At the time, Barr said that he was not aware of any concerns that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team might have expressed about a four-page summary he wrote regarding Mueller’s findings in his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

That appeared to contradict a memo that surfaced this week in which Mueller wrote to Barr raising concerns that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his investigation.

Asked whether Barr should be jailed for lying to Congress, Pelosi replied: “There’s a process involved here.”

Her comments brought a swift rebuke from Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec, who said in a statement: “Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the Attorney General is reckless, irresponsible, and false.”

Pelosi’s news conference came shortly after Barr was a no-show for the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his handling of Mueller report, angering House Democrats who moved closer to holding him in contempt of Congress.

While the gathering at first glance had all the trappings of a major hearing – TV cameras, armed security guards, lawmakers arrayed on the dais – the chair at the witness table remained empty behind a name plate for Barr.

Barr informed the committee on Wednesday he would not testify because of objections to Democratic plans to have a counsel question him alongside lawmakers. The same day, he missed a subpoenaed deadline to hand over the full, unredacted Mueller report – including demands for underlying evidence gathered by prosecutors.

Democrats cast the snub as more than one witness rebuffing a congressional committee, but rather as a threat to democracy that would reverberate long after President Trump left office. Trump has vowed to “fight all the subpoenas” from Democrats, sued to block compliance by accounting firms and banks and instructed former and current aides to ignore the repeated requests from Capitol Hill.

“We must come together to protect the integrity of this chamber,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the committee. “The administration may not dictate the terms of a hearing in this hearing room. The challenge we face is bigger than a single witness.”

Nadler told reporters that the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate, reflected in Barr ignoring the committee, is a “grave danger for American democracy.” He said he would await a response from the attorney general but would proceed to hold him in contempt in a “day or two, maybe by Monday. We’ll see.”

Other Democrats on the committee said they will press for contempt of Barr as well as push for Mueller to testify on his findings in the Russia investigation and whether Trump tried to obstruct the probe.

“We have a responsibility to compel compliance,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told reporters.

While the House could move quickly to vote on a contempt citation, using it to obtain information from the Justice Department, such as the full Mueller report, could take years and not be resolved until long after Trump leaves office.

Barr, as attorney general, is unlikely to enforce a contempt citation against himself, and the Justice Department is expected to ignore the citation. But Democrats plan to use it as a way to try to get the Mueller report through civil court.

In 2012, the Republican-led House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt and sued him for refusing to hand over documents as part of the so-called Fast and Furious investigation. Several years later, a judge made the Justice Department turn over the information.

In the hearing Thursday, Judiciary Republicans ignored Nadler’s plea for their help defending the institution. Rather, they turned their fire on the chairman and accused him of making unprecedented demands on Barr aimed at creating a “political stunt.”

“The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because the Democrats decided they didn’t want him here today,” said ranking Republican Douglas Collins of Georgia.

Collins also railed against Nadler for refusing to give other Republicans a chance to speak during the contentious session. Committee chairmen, he argued, traditionally recognize and allow the minority to object or raise points of inquiry, regardless of whether they agree with their arguments or positions.

A few minutes later, after about 20 minutes of acrimony between Republicans and Democrats, Nadler gaveled the hearing to a close over the objection of Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who tried but failed to be recognized to speak.

While brief, the hearing had its circuslike moments. Minutes before the hearing started, Rep. Stephen Cohen, D-Tenn., walked into the room carrying a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a plastic chicken. The clicks of cameras suddenly echoed throughout the room as watchers chuckled at his insinuation that Barr was too afraid to show up for questioning.

While some Democrats ate the chicken, others lobbed that accusation more forcefully.

“He didn’t want to come to a chamber where the chairman isn’t going to use his gavel to protect him the way that Sen. Lindsey Graham did yesterday,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., referring to the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel where Barr testified Wednesday.

Rep. Ted Lieu mockingly suggested “I totally understand why he wouldn’t come to the committee . . . because he admitted before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he hadn’t read the evidence.”

“I’m thinking he may need to take some time to read the actual evidence before talking about the Mueller report,” the California Democrat joked, referring to Barr’s admission Wednesday that he had not examined the underlying evidence before determining that the president did not obstruct justice.

Collins tried to defend Barr.

“I think yesterday he proved he’s not terrified before anybody,” Collins said, noting that Barr testified for about six hours in the Senate.

During a Washington Post Live interview on Thursday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., defended Barr and accused the Judiciary Committee Democrats of not having enough faith in its members to allow them to do all the questioning.

“Does Nadler not believe his own members are sharp enough?” McCarthy asked. Asked if he thinks Democrats would impeach Barr, McCarthy said: “I think they’d be stupid. I don’t understand the reason why.”

Earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested Nadler should resign.

“If he and his committee aren’t capable of actually asking the attorney general questions themselves and need to staff that out, it seems like a pretty pathetic moment for the chairman of that committee,” Sanders said. “Look, we lost confidence in Jerry Nadler a long time ago. But it’s surprising to find out that he’s actually lost confidence in himself and his capability to do his job. If he can’t and he’s not capable of asking the attorney general questions maybe he should step down or resign.”


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