Robert Mueller’s upcoming testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees is still scheduled for July 17, despite Attorney General William Barr’s offer to provide cover if the former special counsel decides he wants to join the ranks of those ignoring congressional subpoenas. But while Barr’s Justice Department isn’t overtly stopping Mueller—so far—the same can’t be said with regard to two other members of the special counsel team. Two former members of Mueller’s staff have been asked to speak with House committees. Barr has not just instructed them to ignore a congressional subpoena; he’s also telling them to go back on an agreement they’ve already made to appear.
And what’s most amazing about all this is that Barr is issuing orders to two men who are no longer with the Justice Department. The attorney general is telling private citizens that they can’t talk to Congress.
As The New York Times reports, former special counsel’s office attorneys Aaron Zebley and James Quarles have already reached an agreement to testify before the same two committees as Mueller. That agreement was made when Barr was still operating on the pretense that the White House didn’t care what Mueller or his team had to say. But as Barr’s rhetoric has moved from go ahead to full stop, the DOJ has declared its opposition to Zebley and Quarles speaking to Congress. That opposition has been expressed in direct instructions telling them not to show.
Unlike Mueller, who will give back-to-back public testimony before both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees in addition to answering some questions behind closed doors, Zebley and Quarles are slated to do all their talking in private. Zebley was regarded as Mueller’s top assistant, and representatives are hoping that a private discussion with him could fill in details on areas of the investigation where Mueller has been reluctant to speak. Quarles is “a seasoned Washington legal hand.” So seasoned, in fact, that he was a Watergate prosecutor. Which seems like the kind of experience that would stop someone from being pushed around by the likes of William Barr.
At the moment, the appearance of both men seems to be at least somewhat in doubt, as sources describe the situation as “in flux.”
Throughout the investigation, Trump has made claims of transparency that are patently untrue. In many cases, members of his White House staff, transition team, or campaign team have refused to appear before Congress or claimed Fifth Amendment protection when meeting with the special counsel’s office. Trump has talked endlessly about the “millions of pages” of material sent to Mueller’s team, but has failed to mention that much of this was simply filler, while information that was requested was not provided.
Both Trump and Barr have spoken in terms of “cooperation” while undertaking the greatest expansion of executive privilege in U.S. history. Trump has not only extended privilege to people not among his top advisers and documents that could not even remotely be considered advice given to the executive, but has clearly used that claim as a means of extending the cover-up. And there has been a repeated cycle of pretense in claiming that people are free to speak, then moving through various shades of “There’s no point in questioning them,” before arriving at an apparently inevitable declaration that Congress isn’t allowed to direct questions to Trump’s staffers.
It might seem impossible that executive privilege might be extended so far as to cover men who never spoke to Trump on a topic of direct concern to Congress. But Barr has already demonstrated his willingness to exert privilege over the entire Mueller report—the equivalent of a suspect being allowed to hide all the evidence in his case. What steps Barr might take to prevent Zebley and Quarles from testifying is unclear. The DOJ has been utterly uninterested in seeking to enforce subpoenas produced by Congress. That doesn’t mean Barr won’t find the energy to block Congress from hearing the truth.