WASHINGTON — House Democrats, decrying what they called an erosion of American democracy, threatened on Thursday to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress after he failed to appear at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee and ignored a subpoena deadline to hand over Robert S. Mueller III’s full report and evidence.
They seized on a letter from Mr. Mueller to the attorney general in which he took Mr. Barr to task for the way he had characterized the special counsel’s conclusions on whether President Trump had obstructed justice. At two hearings, before the House and Senate, Mr. Barr indicated he had been unaware of such discontent.
“What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, referring to a House hearing in which he said he was unaware that the special counsel had protested his portrayal of his conclusions. “That’s a crime.”
Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, fired back, “Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false.”
Convening in a nearly empty hearing room despite his absence, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, called on Republicans to join Democrats in standing up for the rights of Congress against an administration that he said was systematically thwarting its constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch.
But mostly he trained his ire at the attorney general, who objected to Mr. Nadler’s insistence that staff lawyers be allowed to ask questions at the hearing.
“The attorney general must make a choice,” he said. “Every one of us must make the same choice. That choice is now an obligation of our office. The choice is simple: we can stand up to this president in defense of the country and the Constitution we love, or we can let the moment pass us by. ”
The challenge for Mr. Nadler and other House committee leaders is now to figure out how to secure the material they need for their work. Mr. Nadler said afterward that he would give Mr. Barr “one or two more days” to relent on producing the full Mueller report and the evidence gathered to compile it before initiating contempt proceedings. Committee Democrats were preparing to make the Justice Department a formal counteroffer.
But with no cooperation in sight, House Democrats would then have to choose between the different options they have to escalate their case. Dozens of Democrats in Congress, including some running for president, seized on Mr. Mueller’s letter to the attorney general and called for Mr. Barr to resign.
Some lawmakers are arguing for opening an impeachment inquiry, which grants the House clearer powers to command information from the executive branch. Though not necessarily punitive, a vote to hold Mr. Barr in contempt would put a mark on his record and could push the dispute into the courts. House Republicans chose that route in 2012 when they held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over internal Justice Department documents.
In a private meeting with members of her leadership team, Ms. Pelosi called Mr. Barr a “lap dog” for President Trump and an “enabler” of his obstruction of justice, according to a congressional aide in the room.
At her weekly news conference, the speaker referred to Mr. Barr’s testimony to Congress on April 9 when he told Representative Charlie Crist, Democrat of Florida, that he was not aware of Mr. Mueller’s concern about the way he had presented the special counsel’s conclusions.
The letter from Mr. Mueller to Mr. Barr, released by the Justice Department on Wednesday, showed that before that House hearing, the special counsel had laid out concerns about how Mr. Barr had communicated his findings to the public.
“He lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime,” the speaker said. “Being the attorney general does not give you a bath to go say whatever you’d like.”
But privately, Ms. Pelosi continued to hold her line against impeachment. “Impeachment is too good for him,” she said of Mr. Trump, according to the aide.
Officially, Mr. Barr refused to show for the Judiciary Committee hearing because Democrats had insisted that he sit for questioning from Democratic and Republican staff lawyers. In a statement on Wednesday, Ms. Kupec called Democrats’ demands “unprecedented and unnecessary.” She said Mr. Barr would be happy to come testify if Democrats would drop that demand.
In the Judiciary hearing room, where the committee convened for only about ten minutes, there were moments of levity, too. Before the hearing even began, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, munched on Kentucky Fried Chicken on the dais as press cameras clicked. The highest law enforcement officer in the country, he said, was a gobbler.
Democrats, seeking to dramatize the attorney general’s absence, set out an empty chair with a name card for Mr. Barr.
“What is he hiding under here?” Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said, miming confusion as he moved the chair around. “Just checking.”
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, lit into his Democratic colleagues for making “ludicrous” demands of the attorney general, and accused the committee’s chairman of manufacturing a conflict instead of trying to get at the truth.
“The reason Bill Barr is not here today is because the Democrats decided they did not want him here today,” Mr. Collins said, his rapid-fire Georgia rat-a-tat winding up in indignation.
When Republicans tried to prolong the brief session with parliamentary objections, Mr. Nadler gaveled out, cut the microphones, and walked out of the hearing room.
It was a stark contrast to just a day before, when Mr. Barr testified for five hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a hearing largely spent defending his handling of the special counsel’s report.
The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee provided a more friendly venue for Mr. Barr to take his first congressional questions since the report’s release, but it was by no means a tranquil session.
Democrats pressed Mr. Barr on the newly revealed letter in which Mr. Mueller complained about Mr. Barr’s initial summary of his findings. They asked him to explain why he did not view specific actions by Mr. Trump to thwart investigators as obstruction of justice. And they excoriated Mr. Barr as “purposely misleading” Congress and the public and even lying to Congress, all in service of insulating Mr. Trump from the consequences of his actions.
Mr. Barr took the punches and did not give ground, agreeing with Republicans that the time had come to review the conduct of investigators and move on.
He called Mr. Mueller’s letter “a bit snitty” and professed amazement that it should even matter after he released, voluntarily, a lightly redacted 448-page report. He defended his legal determinations around obstruction of justice and aspects of Mr. Trump’s behavior. The Justice Department’s job, he said, is to make charging decisions, not to police right and wrong. Congress or voters, he said, are welcome to look at the evidence themselves and pursue other recourse.
“Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false,” Mr. Barr said. “And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite.”
Democrats have still been unable to secure testimony from Mr. Mueller himself. Mr. Nadler said on Wednesday that they were hoping to hold a hearing on May 15, but were still “seeking to firm up the date” with the Justice Department. It is also unclear if Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel whom the committee subpoenaed to testify this month, will show up.