Our Opinion: A hatchet job

Congressional hearings often have far less to do with getting information than with giving lawmakers public platforms on which to advance their own interests. Witness the number of times celebrities rather than genuine experts are called to testify. They draw more attention from the press.

At some point, a line needs to be drawn between legitimate congressional inquiry and political theatrics. Attorney General William Barr drew the line Thursday and refused to allow House of Representatives Democrats to cross it.

Barr had been scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. Because that chamber is controlled by Democrats, so is the panel. It is chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. Nadler had called Barr to testify on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report regarding Russian interference with the 2016 election. Mueller’s team concluded that, despite Democrat accusations, President Donald Trump did not cooperate with Russian operatives. As for whether the president obstructed justice, Mueller refused to exonerate him but also rejected charging Trump. On Wednesday, Barr testified on the same subject before a Senate committee controlled by Republican lawmakers. The panel’s Democrat members accused him of lying to protect Trump.

More of the same, only intensified, could have been expected in the House on Thursday. Barr had been prepared to run that gantlet.

Then Nadler attempted to change the rules. Members of lawmakers’ staffs would be permitted to ask Barr questions, he said.

During such hearings, staff members frequently pass notes to lawmakers. Sometimes they whisper suggestions to them. To those who watch congressional hearings, it is obvious that frequently, representatives and senators are asking questions from scripts prepared by their aides.

But the past practice has been the only the lawmakers actually ask questions.

Nadler’s plan was blatantly obvious. Realizing Democrat representatives might stumble a few times in confronting Barr, he wanted more aides, quite likely prepared for weeks in advance, to lead the assault. That would be much better television for Democrats’ purposes, he understands.

But Barr refused to play the game. He sent word he would not testify. Democrats responded with a high school trick, placing a prop chicken besides a witness table card with Barr’s name on it.

Again, Barr was ready to undergo the trial of a pure-politics hearing handled appropriately, with lawmakers asking the questions. He was right to refuse to take part in the more blatant hatchet job Nadler proposed. The swamp is slimy enough as it is.


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