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Former Federal Prosecutor On Battle Between House Democrats And Attorney General Barr


The battle between House Democrats and the attorney general - full boil now. Mr. Barr was a no-show Thursday, declining to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. And he's refused to comply with a subpoena for the full unredacted Mueller report and its underlying material. For their part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outright accused the attorney general of lying to Congress while House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler threatened to hold him in contempt.

We welcome Elliot Williams. He's a former deputy assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's in our studio. Mr. Williams, thanks for being with us.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: If the attorney general continues to defy subpoenas for the full report, what else might the Democrats do?

WILLIAMS: Well, they can hold him in contempt of Congress. But let's - you know, we're quibbling about these tactics that the Democrats can follow. And we should sort of pull the camera back - or the microphone here as the case is.

SIMON: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: And what is this really about? What was this whole week about? And I think this fight between the executive and legislative branch is remarkable when you have an executive branch and a president that are committed to thwarting Congress but also not really regarding Congress as a coequal branch of government. And a number of the instances we saw this week, both Barr's - you know, over Barr not coming to the House of Representatives and this question about whether anyone in the administration will comply with a subpoena all gets back to this fundamental, you know, presidential harassment that the president's been talking about for a long while.

And so it's - you know, we're getting into the minutia of individual tactics that drive hearings. But really, we should think about what the president's approach to Congress has been and how that's forcing us to reshape the notion of what separation of powers is. And that's unfortunate, I think.

SIMON: Does Congress have any options?

WILLIAMS: Options.

SIMON: I mean, Republicans tried this with Fast and Furious...

WILLIAMS: They did.

SIMON: ...Didn't they?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. They did. And they held my former boss Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Now, the problem is most of the time when there's a contempt resolution, the individual - you're asking the Department of Justice to arrest the Department of Justice...

SIMON: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...Essentially, right? So, you know, I mean, there's not really much...

SIMON: Well, they know the address.

WILLIAMS: They know where to find him if they do want to go after him. But at the end of the day, most of these things get worked out. Fast and Furious ultimately was resolved, and the documents were turned over. And there's always an accommodations process. But again, it gets back to the question, when one party sort of refuses to regard the other as an equal negotiating partner, it's hard to negotiate. And I think we're seeing some of that now in a way that we haven't certainly even in the 1990s with Dan Burton versus the Clinton White House. This is an interesting era we've entered in the relationship between the executive and legislative.

SIMON: Is there anything that could be done to bring in the testimony of Don McGahn...


SIMON: ....Former White House counsel?

WILLIAMS: You know, it's much, much harder to bar - no pun intended, to bar the testimony of a private citizen, which he is now, if he wishes to testify. The question is, does he wish to testify? Now, obviously, his personal interests and his legal interests don't quite line up with his former bosses because now, you know, there's some loyalty questions. I know that, you know, the president...

SIMON: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...Comments on that a lot but also some legal places where they're at odds. And so for the - if he wishes to testify, he will likely testify. Now, the president...

SIMON: He could also - he's welcome here any time.

WILLIAMS: Oh (laughter). I'm sure he is. And I'm sure you'd do a great interview. You know, it also doesn't have to be a full open hearing in testimony. They could do an interview in private and work out any number of ways. There's a complicated - a longstanding negotiation process over all of these hearings that, again, goes back to the...

SIMON: Yeah. But this administration doesn't seem to want to negotiate it, right?

WILLIAMS: And again - and I think getting back to this whole question of - so let's get back to Barr's testimony before the House of Representatives. This question of 30 minutes of staff interviews - you know, staff questioning a witness - it's pettifog. It's a minor thing that - and frankly, I've negotiated these kinds of hearings. And it's just minor. They could work that out. And under normal terms they would. And so, yes, both McGahn and Barr can negotiate the terms of their appearance and if we, the people and all the parties, have the will to do it.

SIMON: Elliot Williams, former federal prosecutor and principal at The Raben Group, thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.