WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America as he testified for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee, pushing back against angry, skeptical Democrats who said President Donald Trump’s administration is unconstitutionally suppressing dissent.
The hearing, held Tuesday as the late civil rights icon John Lewis lay in state steps away outside the Capitol, highlighted the wide election-year gulf between the two parties on police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement. Massive protests have sparked unrest across the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and calls for police reform are growing louder.
But Barr said “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” and argued the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Floyd’s killing, which he called a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement. But he also said there was no systemic racism in law enforcement.
“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” Barr said of the Portland protests.
The hearing marks Barr’s first appearance before the committee after 18 months in office, bringing him face-to-face with the panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats say is politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. But little new ground was uncovered; fuming Democrats often used their five minutes to lay out their frustrations and cut Barr off as he attempted to answer questions.
The hearing comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Barr has taken actions cheered by President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics. Among them: the Justice Department’s decision to drop the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn and Barr’s urging for a more lenient sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone, a move that prompted the entire trial team’s departure. Trump later commuted the sentence entirely.
Republicans were ready to back Barr up, with the top Republican on the panel, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, using his opening statement to show an eight-minute video that spliced together images of violence by protesters around the country.
Democrats retorted with a video of their own of more peaceful protesters, shown by Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline.
“We fought for democracy, for the right to speak freely and you are attempting to take that away,” Cicilline told Barr. “What’s worse, you’re doing it for the sole purpose of furthering the president’s political agenda and generating footage for Trump campaign commercials.”
Opening the hearing, committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said the Trump administration had “twisted the Department of Justice into a shadow of its former self,” serving the powerful before average Americans. He said the committee has a responsibility to protect Americans “from that kind of corruption.”
Nadler said Barr had “aided and abetted” Trump’s worst impulses and excoriated him and the Justice Department for turning a blind eye to necessary reforms to police departments, for dismissing Black Lives Matter protests and for flooding streets with federal agents to stop protesters.
Under combative questioning, Barr acerbically defended himself but revealed little new information about his motivations or the Justice Department’s recent actions on policing or otherwise.
“Many of the Democrats on this Committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions,” Barr said in his opening statement. “Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”
On policing, Barr’s testimony underscored his department’s ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and Floyd’s death, which has led to state charges against four officers and is under investigation by federal authorities. Massive but peaceful demonstrations followed Floyd’s death in May.
The attorney general acknowledged to lawmakers Floyd’s death struck a chord in the Black community because it reinforced concerns Black people are treated differently by police. But he condemned Americans who he says have responded inappropriately to Floyd’s death through what he said was rioting and anarchy.
“As elected officials of the federal government, every member of this committee — regardless of your political views or your feelings about the Trump administration — should condemn violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property,” Barr said. “So should state and local leaders who have a responsibility to keep their communities safe.“
Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause; the people were detained and later released. And in Washington, D.C., peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the streets by federal officers using smoke bombs and pepper balls last month before a photo op by Trump in front of St. John’s church, where Barr had accompanied him.
He defended the broad use of law enforcement power to deal with the situation, noting that protesters had earlier set fire to the church and “it was total consensus that you couldn’t allow that to happen so close to the White House.” The department’s internal watchdog has opened investigations into use of force and other tactics by agents in Washington and Portland.
He also said the force was used because the protesters would not disperse from the area when law enforcement officials were trying to move back the security perimeter, a decision made the night before. When pressed on details, he pointed to the investigations.
The use of pepper spray was warranted, even if peaceful protesters were also harmed, he said.
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Beyond the federal response to the demonstrations, Barr was pressed in detail about his intervention in the Flynn and Stone cases, both of which arose from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Democrats criticized him for partly taking into account Stone’s health and age, 67, and said those standards haven’t been used in other similar cases.
Barr said he told the acting U.S. attorney that “we are going to leave it up to the judge” and that he ordered the revised recommendation to be filed when the line prosecutors submitted an initial recommendation calling for a sentence of seven to nine years.
“And even though I knew I would get a lot of criticism for doing that, I think at the end of the day my obligation is to be fair to the individual,” Barr said.
As Republicans quizzed Barr about his efforts to untangle the origins of the Russia investigation, Democrats scolded him for downplaying the gravity of Mueller’s findings in a summary letter that he released before the public had even seen the report. Justice officials are now investigating the previous Justice Department’s decisions as it started investigating Trump’s ties to Russia during the Obama administration and Barr has been sharply critical of his predecessors.