Barr’s vacant chair at House hearing wasn’t the first empty seat to make waves in US politics – USA TODAY
Attorney General William Barr made good Thursday on his threat to skip a House hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 election
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee set up a chair and place card for Attorney General William Barr on Thursday, knowing the seat would remain empty because Barr had already refused to attend the hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., later added a glass chicken to Barr’s empty place at the witness table, implying Barr was too afraid to testify. He also brought a bucket of KFC to the hearing and tweeted the night before about #ChickenBarr.
Barr’s no-show came on the heels of Wednesday’s contentious appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee where Democrats grilled the attorney general on the summaries of Mueller’s conclusions that he supplied ahead of the redacted report’s release and his decision not to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction of justice.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Barr had objected to being questioned by lawyers hired by the committee and its members and to the possibility of extended questioning behind closed doors.
For Nadler, Barr’s empty seat symbolized the “challenge” facing the Congress under President Trump. Citing the Trump administration’s failures to honor congressional requests and what he sees as the president’s desire to render the body “inert as a separate and co-equal branch of government,” Nadler said the nation is facing a “clear and present danger” to the constitutional order.
“History will judge us for how we face this challenge,” Nadler said.
As we await history’s verdict, here’s a look back at some other famous, and infamous, empty chairs from our nation’s political past:
Four empty seats at hearing on Watergate break-in
Even before President Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Rep. Wright Patman, D-Texas, was trying to get four Nixon aides to answer questions about the June break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters: former Attorney General and Nixon campaign committee chairman John Mitchell, Clark McGregor – who replaced Mitchell on the campaign, Nixon campaign fundraiser Maurice Stans and White House counsel John Dean.
The four men did not show up when Patman, the chairman of the House Banking Committee, summoned them to appear before his committee in October 1972 to answer questions about how Nixon campaign funds ended up in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. The New York Times reported the first three men did not appear on the advice of their attorneys, while Dean claimed executive privilege.
Patman knew the men weren’t coming, but he set up four empty chairs for them anyway and questioned them for an hour, a former investigator for Patman told Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast.
“President Nixon is responsible for those four empty chairs,” Patman declared, saying the administration had “pulled down an iron curtain of secrecy.”
Wilbur Ross skips Appropriations hearing
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross canceled a scheduled appearance before the House Appropriations Committee last month, offering to send his deputies to testify in his place. the committee rejected the offer and held a hearing with an empty seat marked for Ross.
Roll Call reported that Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., addressed the chair and said, “Secretary Ross had no schedule conflicts to speak of and no other excuse other than the fact that he simply didn’t want to appear before this subcommittee and be held personally accountable.”
Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., lamented the decision not to allow Ross’ aides to testify.
“You have people here, ready to answer the questions,” Graves said, according to Roll Call. “Yet today’s hearing has to be about an empty chair, so maybe it’s a little bit more theater today and less about accountability and transparency,” Graves also said.
Google skips Senate Intelligence hearing
Search giant Google and its parent company Alphabet outraged lawmakers in September when they refused to send Google CEO Sundar Pichai or Alphabet’s chief executive Larry Page to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election interference.
While the top executives from other tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter showed up to answer senators’ questions, Google was represented at the hearing with an empty chair. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., referred to the company as “the invisible witness.”
Clint Eastwood debates empty chair at 2012 RNC
Clint Eastwood’s performance at the August 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, was widely panned after the actor used his time on stage to debate an empty chair meant to represent then-President Barack Obama who was seeking re-election.
The words “rambling” and “incoherent” were used by many commentators describing Eastwood’s speech, which featured occasional exchanges with an invisible Obama.
When asked by Esquire in 2016 what “troubles” him most, Eastwood said, “I guess when I did that silly thing at the Republican convention, talking to the chair.”