May 2, 2019 / 1:16 PM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 1-Minus Barr, U.S. House committee convenes Mueller hearing

(Adds Biden report, TV)

By David Morgan and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON, May 2 (Reuters) - A U.S. House committee convened on Thursday without Attorney General William Barr in attendance to discuss his handling of the Mueller report at a time of rising tensions between the Trump administration and Congress.

A day after Barr appeared at a Senate hearing to defend his handling of the report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee opened a similar session expected to feature an empty chair at the witness table.

Barr said on Wednesday he would not appear before the Democratic-led panel, blaming the questioning format.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler had told reporters that the hearing would go ahead in hopes that Barr would reconsider. Committee Democrats have vowed to issue a subpoena to try to force Barr to testify if he does not show up.

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Barr defended his handling of the Mueller report on Russia’s interference in President Donald Trump’s favor and whether Trump subsequently tried to obstruct Mueller’s probe.

The report, almost two years in the making, detailed a series of acts by Trump to impede the probe, but did not conclude whether those actions constituted the crime of obstruction. It did find that Trump and his campaign did not engage in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

Barr is under fire for how he characterized the Mueller report in a summary on March 24, several weeks before the findings were released. Trump seized on Barr’s summary to declare he had been fully exonerated.

Democrats have alleged Barr may have also given misleading testimony to Congress about criticism he received from Mueller.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, among those seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, on Wednesday night called for Barr’s resignation, the Washington Post reported.

Barr’s decision to skip Wednesday’s House appearance came after the committee adopted a more aggressive format with an extra hour of questioning from committee lawyers, in addition to those from the panel’s lawmakers.

The Justice Department on Wednesday called the conditions “unnecessary” and staff questions inappropriate.

The department also refused to comply with a subpoena seeking Mueller’s full, unredacted report and underlying investigative files from the probe.

Nadler said he would weigh a contempt citation against Barr if the unredacted version of the report was not released.

Lawmakers are also seeking testimony from Mueller as soon as this month.

Reporting by David Morgan, Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Lawrence Hurley and Susan Heavey; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney

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