Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report. Image Credit: AP

WASHINGTON: US Attorney General William Barr’s refusal to testify at a House of Representatives hearing on Thursday is set to escalate tensions with Democrats probing his role in the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Barr said on Wednesday he would not attend the hearing of the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee in a dispute with Chairman Jerrold Nadler about the questioning format.

Nadler told reporters the hearing would go ahead in the hope that Barr would reconsider his position overnight. Committee Democrats have vowed to issue a subpoena in an effort to force Barr to testify if he fails to show up.

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Barr defended his handling of the Mueller report on Russia’s interference in President Donald Trump’s favour in the 2016 US election and whether Trump subsequently tried to obstruct Mueller’s probe.

The Mueller report details a series of acts by Trump to impede the Russia probe but does not conclude whether those actions constitute the crime of obstruction. It found, however, that Trump and his campaign did not engage in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

Barr has come under fire for his characterisation of the report in a summary he issued on March 24, several weeks before the report was released, which Trump seized on to declare he had been fully exonerated.

The House panel is one of several that are investigating Trump, his presidency and his business interests.

Barr’s decision surfaced hours after the committee adopted a more aggressive format that would subject the attorney general to an extra hour of questions from committee lawyers, in addition to questions from Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the panel.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement on Wednesday that the panel had placed “unprecedented and unnecessary” conditions on Barr’s testimony and called the questions posed by committee staff inappropriate.

The Trump administration has been contesting requests from Congress for documents and testimony on various fronts.

The Justice Department said on Wednesday it would not comply with a subpoena seeking Mueller’s full report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election and underlying investigative files from the probe.

Nadler said he would weigh a contempt citation against the attorney general if the unredacted version of the report was not made available.

— Reuters