House Democrats clashed Tuesday with Attorney General William Barr at a contentious hearing where they argued over the Justice Department’s deployment of federal officers to cities and the use of force against protesters, Barr’s intervention in the prosecution of two allies of President Donald Trump and numerous other issues.
Barr appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time in a long-awaited showdown with Democrats, who have accused him of a litany of offenses and even raised the specter of impeachment.
Democrats launched into several impassioned attacks on Barr, repeatedly cutting him off as the lawmakers and Barr raised their voices and interrupted one another. When Democrats prevented Barr from answering during their time to question him, he often used the next round of Republican questioning as a chance to respond. The quarreling even spilled into whether Barr would be granted a five-minute break toward the tail end of the hearing.
Democrats went after Barr on multiple fronts. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, pressed Barr on whether federal troops deployed to cities were being used as “props” for Trump’s reelection. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas pushed him on whether the Trump administration was fighting systemic racism in policing, and Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia accused Barr of aiding Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone and first national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Barr dismissed the Democratic criticisms, saying that he acted independently to protect the rule of law in the Stone and Flynn cases, that he disagreed there was systemic racism in police departments and that federal officers had been sent to protect federal buildings “under attack” and combat violence crime.
“I agree the President’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people and sometimes that’s a difficult decision to make, especially when you know you’re going to be castigated for it,” Barr said.
Barr got into a heated back-and-forth with Johnson over Stone’s sentencing as Johnson repeatedly refused to let Barr respond while the Georgia Democrat recounted the episode.
“I know your story but I’m asking my question,” Johnson said as Barr tried to get a word in.
“I’m telling my story — that’s what I’m here to do,” Barr fired back.
The two men continued to speak over each other, at times in raised voices, with Johnson accusing Barr of “carrying out Trump’s will.”
“Let me ask you,” Barr shouted back at one point, referencing Stone’s age. “Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?”
Later, Barr was asked pointedly by Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington why the federal government’s response was different toward White protesters in Michigan who advocated violence against the Michigan governor.
“There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the Attorney General, the top cop in this country, when White men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the President to ‘activate’ you, because they’re getting the President’s personal agenda done,” Jayapal said. “But when Black people, and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism and the President’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the President.”
Democrats have detailed a long list of grievances, from Barr’s initial characterization of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the Justice Department’s use of force against protesters to Barr’s threats to state and local officials over their handling of Covid-19. The topics in the hearing ping-ponged among the various controversies, covering everything from false claims of widespread mail-in voting fraud to the administration’s litigation surrounding the census and the Affordable Care Act.
“Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the President,” Nadler said Tuesday.
‘Without any direction or interference’
In his prepared remarks, Barr accused Democrats of seeking to discredit him because of his investigation “into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe,” though he did not read that part of his statement at Tuesday’s hearing.
“My decisions on criminal matters have been left to my independent judgment, based on the law and fact, without any direction or interference from the White House or anyone outside the Department,” Barr said.
Republican lawmakers had a different set of issues they were eager to discuss with Barr related to the FBI’s actions in the Russia investigation, which Barr has tapped US Attorney John Durham to investigate. GOP lawmakers also praised Barr’s response to violence occurring at protests across the country, accusing Democrats of ignoring the attacks on police. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the panel, played a video in his opening statement splicing together violence and rioting that included attacks on police officers.
“The fact of the matter is if you take Portland, the courthouse is under attack. The federal resources are inside the perimeter around the courthouse defending it from almost two months of daily attacks where people march to the court, try to gain entrance and have set fires, thrown things, used explosives, and injured police,” Barr said.
The start of the hearing was delayed for about an hour after Nadler was involved in a car accident on his way to Washington Tuesday morning, in which Nadler was not injured, a spokesman said.
Nadler is investigating several of Barr’s actions and had threatened to subpoena the attorney general before they agreed on Tuesday’s appearance.
Barr had never previously appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. When he last appeared before a Senate panel in May 2019, he defended his decision-making in the rollout of the special counsel report. More than a year removed, however, the Mueller saga was just one topic of many issues touched on during Tuesday’s hearing.
In February, Barr clawed back a sentencing recommendation that career prosecutors in Washington, DC, had requested for Stone, the longtime friend of Trump convicted by a jury of charges including lying to Congress and witness tampering, arguing it was too stiff. In May, the Justice Department said it would drop the charges against Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser whose guilty plea had been secured by Mueller’s team, after an internal review initiated by Barr turned up evidence the attorney general said showed the investigators had built an improper case.
Several Democrats pushed Barr on getting involved in the Stone case, questioning his decision to lessen the line prosecutors’ recommendation, which prompted the prosecutors to leave the case.
“Mr. Attorney General, he threatened the life of a witness,” Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida said to Barr, a reference to Stone’s threats to Randy Credico.
“The judge agreed with me,” Barr responded, arguing Credico did not actually feel threatened and a sentencing enhancement wasn’t warranted.
Protests and policing
More recently, Barr’s hand in the administration’s crackdown on the protests across the country that followed George Floyd’s killing in May has generated outrage from Democrats. Barr played a central role in the decision to forcibly disperse a peaceful demonstration at Lafayette Square in June ahead of a staged walk through the park by Trump. And the Justice Department has also dispatched some federal officers to Portland, where rioters have clashed with authorities nightly outside a complex of federal buildings.
“Mr. Barr, my question is very specific. Do you think it is ever appropriate to use tear gas on peaceful protesters?” asked Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat.
“It is appropriate to use tear gas when it’s indicated to disperse,” Barr responded.
“On peaceful protesters?” Cicilline interrupted.
“To disperse an unlawful assembly, and sometimes, unfortunately, peaceful protesters are affected by that,” Barr said.
Republicans accused Democrats of ignoring the attacks against police officers, and Barr chided them for not denouncing violence. “I hope the Democratic Party takes a stand against the violence,” Barr said.
Barr called the killing of Floyd “horrible,” saying it “understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on long-standing issues in our nation.” But he also recounted the ways that policing in America has changed since “the civil rights movement finally succeeded in tearing down the Jim Crow edifice.”
Jackson Lee pressed Barr on whether the administration was seeking “to end systemic racism and racism in law enforcement” and qualified immunity, the legal doctrine critics say shields law enforcement officers from accountability.