William Barr must be about to set some kind of record.
Less than three months on from his Valentine’s Day swearing-in ceremony, the conservative legal stalwart could be hours from becoming one of the most polarizing attorneys general in history.
Unless there’s a last minute deal with Barr, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler plans to hold a vote Wednesday declaring the nation’s top law enforcement official in contempt of Congress, in a dispute over his handling of the Mueller report. If approved by the committee, the contempt report would go to the full House, where Democrats have a 38-seat majority.
Nadler declared on CNN’s “New Day” that the US is in a “constitutional crisis” over the impasse.
He added, “We are in one because the President is disobeying the law, is refusing all information to Congress.”
The move will escalate the already grave constitutional collision between Democrats and the White House – and push the nation closer to a post-Russia investigation legal morass.
“We live in strange times,” Barr declared on Tuesday.
He had that right – though Democrats will scoff at Barr’s warning that the Justice Department must remain a “beacon,” given his hugely controversial conduct over the last few weeks.
Barr’s extraordinary tenure has become a metaphor for the political dislocation and perilous constitutional waters facing the nation at the conclusion of the Russia investigation.
Unable, or unwilling to land a significant punch on the President, House Democrats are narrowing their sights on Trump’s top current and former officials.
Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn is also in danger of being censured by the Democratic House – after the White House told him not to hand over documents relevant to the Russia investigation.
“I fully expect that the Committee will hold Mr. McGahn in contempt if he fails to appear before the Committee, unless the White House secures a court order directing otherwise,” Nadler wrote to McGahn’s attorney on Tuesday.
And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may be close behind after telling Democrats they had no legal basis to force the disclosure of the President’s tax returns. The New York Times reported on 10 years of Trump’s tax documents Tuesday night, revealing that his businesses lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994 – a look into Trump’s finances that might explain exactly why his administration is working so hard to keep Democrats from prying deeply into the President’s records.
Barr has become the most inflammatory symbol, apart from the President, of an administration that critics see as tearing at constitutional norms that have stood for generations.
Democrats are furious that Barr shaped the political narrative of the Mueller report rollout in a way that favored Trump and even dismayed the special counsel himself.
First, the attorney general sent Congress a letter laying out what he said were Mueller’s bottom lines.
Barr said no conspiracy was established between Trump’s team and Russia in the 2016 election and interpreted evidence gathered by Mueller to argue there was no obstruction case to answer.
Then Barr held a news conference last month prior to issuing a redacted version of the Mueller report to the public. His move allowed Trump to get a jump on his “no collusion, no obstruction” narrative. But the report turned out to be far less clear cut, especially on the obstruction issue, than Barr let on.
Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week also infuriated Democrats who believe he lied to Congress when he said he didn’t know what Mueller thought about his summary of the report, even though the special counsel wrote to him to say it was lacking on context and substance in March.
Democrats also accused Barr of playing into the conspiracy theories of the President and conservative media when he described FBI surveillance of a Trump campaign associate in 2016 as “spying.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray distanced himself from such terminology during a Capitol HIll hearing on Tuesday.
“Well, that’s not the term I would use,” Wray said.
The swift march to a contempt charge is also causing scrutiny of the Democratic Party’s efforts to leverage its new House majority to contain and humble Trump.
Nadler could have had Barr before him last week had he not insisted that he face questions from committee counsels. And Republicans say that Barr would be breaking the law by turning over grand jury testimony.
They also argue his actions are well within the scope of conduct by previous attorneys general under pressure from Congress.
Negotiations between Nadler and Barr’s teams designed to head off the prospect of a contempt vote broke down on Tuesday.
“Still scheduled,” Barr said when asked whether the measure was still on.
In yet another escalation, the Department of Justice informed Nadler in a letter late Tuesday night that it will ask Trump to invoke executive privilege in order to keep the full, unredacted Mueller report and the underlying evidence from being released to Congress, should Nadler hold the contempt vote on Wednesday.
Barr would not be the first attorney general censured with a contempt vote.
Republicans did the same to President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder over the Fast and Furious controversy.
Holder continued to serve unhindered in his post, and litigation surrounding the contempt charge dragged on for years in a way that dampened its political potency.
While being held in contempt by a congressional committee would be a stain on a long legal career, it would also earn Barr a badge of honor from Trump and his supporters.
The specific arguments surrounding the possible contempt charge against Barr are paling in comparison to the political stakes at play that seem to rise by the hour.
’He’s obstructing justice’
Given their reluctance to impeach Trump – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Tuesday he was trying to goad Democrats into such a step – targeting top presidential aides may be the next best thing.
“Every day, he’s obstructing justice by saying this one shouldn’t testify and that one shouldn’t testify and the rest,” Pelosi said at an event hosted by Cornell University.
Democratic leaders see polls that show Americans are not ready for the divisive spectacle of an impeachment vote and hope to use their majority to peel layer by layer from Trump’s presidency to portray it as too corrupt to win a second term.
But the party may have to explain why, if the President is openly obstructing justice and abusing his powers, they are not using their ultimate weapon – impeachment – to stop him and whether they are being negligent in their constitutional duty.
Divides are already opening up between Democratic leaders in Washington and in the presidential race.
But the House Judiciary Committee’s pursuit of the attorney general is also offering fodder for Republicans eager to paint Democrats as seeking any excuse to target a Trump associate.
“Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general when their anger actually lies with the President and the special counsel,” said the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins.
The assault on Barr also seems to be convincing many Republicans to close ranks behind the administration, reflecting the fact that Democrats have no chance to oust Trump in a Senate trial even if they impeach him in the House.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday staged one of his big political interventions designed to shift the Washington narrative, declaring “case closed” on Russia.
“Two years of exhaustive investigation and nothing to establish the fanciful conspiracy theory that Democratic politicians and TV talking heads had treated like a foregone conclusion,” McConnell said.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report