House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday accused the top US law-enforcement officer of committing a crime by lying to Congress, escalating the showdown between Donald Trump's administration and the Democrats investigating him.
Pelosi levelled the rare charge after Attorney General Bill Barr skipped out on his scheduled testimony before a House of Representatives panel eager to probe his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Infuriated Democrats quickly threatened to censure him for contempt.
Barr, in the job since February, had been grilled a day earlier in the Republican-led Senate, where Democrats accused him of whitewashing Mueller's report in order to protect Trump.
But he was a no-show at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, after its leadership announced it would have lawyers cross-examine him following a round of questioning by the panel's elected members.
Barr's absence appeared to antagonize Pelosi, Trump's Democratic nemesis in Congress, who accused the attorney general of misleading lawmakers.
"He lied to Congress," Pelosi said, apparently referring to Barr's testimony under oath before lawmakers in April. "That's a crime."
In that hearing, Barr claimed not to know whether Mueller supported his controversial memo summarizing the report and said he did not know why members of Mueller's team would be frustrated over the summary.
It emerged on Tuesday, however, that when Barr said this, he was already in possession of a March 27 letter from Mueller outlining the special counsel's frustrations.
"If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime," Pelosi said. "Nobody is above the law, not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general."
Mueller's report, the culmination of a 22-month probe yielding charges or convictions of 34 people and three companies, confirmed that Russian operatives tried to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The investigation found that Trump's campaign knew of the sabotage attempt but did not deliberately reach out to conspire with the Russians.
The report detailed numerous occasions in which Trump attempted to thwart the investigation, leading to several Democrats calling for his impeachment.
Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler threatened Barr with contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena demanding delivery of the full, unredacted 448-page report.
He also blasted Barr's failure to appear as part of a wholesale obstruction by the Trump administration of Democrat-led inquiries.
"The challenge we face is that the president of the United States wants desperately to prevent Congress, a co-equal branch of government, from providing any check whatsoever to even his most reckless decisions," Nadler said.
"The system of limited power, the system of not having a president as a dictator, is very much at stake." The brief hearing was notable for Barr's empty seat.
Democrat Steve Cohen mocked the attorney general's absence, bringing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to the proceedings.
"Chicken Barr should have shown up today," Cohen said.
Judiciary's top Republican Doug Collins pushed back fiercely, calling the witness-less hearing a "circus" and all but challenging the House leadership to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump.
If the House approves a contempt motion, it would open Barr to congressional punishments including fines.
Meanwhile, Trump's lawyer Emmet Flood accused Mueller and his special counsel's office (SCO) of politicizing their report when they wrote that "we are unable to reach that judgment" that the president did not commit obstruction of justice.
"Prosecutors simply are not in the business of establishing innocence, any more than they are in the business of 'exonerating' investigated persons," Flood wrote in a mid-April letter to Barr that was published by US media Thursday.
"The SCO's inverted-proof standard and 'exoneration' statements can be understood only as political statements.