Bill Barr and House Democrats engaged in an all-out battle Tuesday as the Attorney General appeared in front of the Judiciary Committee – clashing bitterly and repeatedly over his response to Black Lives Matters protests and his handling of the Roger Stone case and others which touch on President Donald Trump.
The president’s most controversial cabinet member proved to be a lightning rod for Democrats, who made clear before it began that he was in their crosshairs.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler opened by accusing Barr of having federal officers use ‘pepper spray and truncheons’ against protesters to create footage to aid Trump with his ‘law and order’-themed re-election campaign.
‘We are, as a nation, witnessing the federal government turn violently on its own people,’ Nadler said as he opened the hearing more than an hour late after he was involved in a minor car accident.
‘And although responsibility for the government’s failure to protect the health, safety, and constitutional rights of the American people belongs squarely to President Trump,’ Barr said.
‘He needed help,’ Nadler said, pointing to Barr.
‘The president wants footage for his campaign ads, and you appear to be serving it up to him as ordered,’ Nadler said. ‘The protesters aren’t mobs, they’re mothers, they’re veterans and mayors.’
Nadler charged Barr with escalating tensions between police and protesters to achieve ‘obvious political objectives.’ ‘Shame on you Mr. Barr,’ Nadler said.
But Barr hit back at Nadler and the Democrats hard, saying: ‘Since when is it OK to burn down a federal courthouse?’
Barr defended the use of federal law enforcement to quell the protests in Portland, Oregon where some protesters have thrown objects at the courthouse.
‘What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States,’ Barr said.
He was aided by Congressional Republicans, who opened their minority statement with a compilation video of violent disorder in the wake of George Floyd’s death, after ranking Republican Jim Jordan accused Democrats of attacking Barr for his willingness to back Trump’s claims the Obama administration spied on him.
That set the tone for the hearing, with Democratic members making lengthy statements and trying to tie Barr down to short answers. He was often interrupted by Democrats, a tactic that annoyed the GOP.
Republicans praised him and lashed out at protesters who they said were ‘Antifa.’
They chided Nadler for making previous statements suggesting Antifa was a ‘myth.’
Barr told members the violence taking place in Portland 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.
‘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.
But under questioning by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who is black, Barr also downplayed accusations of widespread racial discrimination in policing across the country.
‘You indicated that the killing of George Floyd was shocking. I disagree,’ Jackson Lee said. ‘You seem to have a difficult time understanding systemic racism and institutional racism that has plagued so many.’
Barr replied: ‘I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments.’
Barr’s allies on the Republican side defended him furiously.
‘Wow. I’m beginning to believe that you’re the cause of the common cold, and possibly even the COVID-19 because everything’s being thrown at you,’ remarked Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia who’s seeking a Senate seat.
Jordan, an Ohio Republican who serves as the committee’s ranking member, gave a visual presentation as part of his opening statement – showing scene after scene of anti-police disorder to serve as a prebuttal to assist Barr, under fire for the federal handling of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests.
‘Well, I hope that Mr. Jordan will never complain about the length of my opening statement,’ Nadler said after the short film aired, adding that the Republicans didn’t abide by the audio-visual guidelines and give the committee 48 hours notice before showing a video.
The video showed a number of news people talking about ‘peaceful protests’ and then cut to a press conference featuring the grieving wife of David Dorn, a retired police officer who was shot in St. Louis on June 2 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s Memorial Day death.
It then showed imagery of protesters setting fires, throwing fireworks at police, trying to knock down fencing around federal property and general unrest.
Nadler opened the hearing by reading off a laundry list of Barr’s perceived transgressions.
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.’
‘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.
Nadler placed the most blame on Trump. ‘He could not have done this alone.’
‘And after he finished utterly humiliating his first attorney general, he found you,’ Barr said, addressing the witness.
‘In your time at the department you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president,’ Nadler continued.
He accused the attorney general of downplaying systemic racism and said he showed ‘open hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement.’
Nadler also said Barr spread ‘disinformation about voter fraud,’ said the AG tried to change the census laws to aid Trump and Republicans and misrepresented the findings of the Mueller Report.
‘Again and again you personally have interfered with ongoing criminal investigations to protect the president and his allies from the consequences of their actions, Nadler also said.
Prior to showing the video, Jordan used his opening remarks to suggest Barr was being picked on by Democrats because he had testified that President Obama’s administration ‘spied’ on the Trump campaign.
Barr opened up by paying his respects to the late civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, who is lying in state on Capitol Hill.
He said he believed the Black Lives Matter protesters ‘concerns are legitimate.’
‘At the same time I think it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism generally infecting our police departments,’ Barr said. ‘It seems far more likely that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors that can be addressed with focused attention over time.’
Barr pointed out that several more white Americans than black Americans had been killed by officers this year.
He also pointed out the number of black Americans killed by gun violence by other black Americans.
‘Each of those lives matter,’ Barr testified.
Barr said that federal forces have gone into cities like Portland to defend federal property from being burned down. And he reported to lawmakers that the protests have been ‘hijacked by violent instigators.’
‘The rioters come equipped for fighting,’ Barr said, adding that they ‘cannot reasonably be called protests.’
Barr defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America, saying ‘violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests’ sparked by Floyd’s death.
‘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. To tacitly condone destruction and anarchy is to abandon the basic rule-of-law principles that should unite us even in a politically divisive time.’
Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause; they 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 ahead of a photo-op by Trump in front of St. John’s chruch, where Barr had accompanied him.
Barr described the run-up to Trump’s June 1 photo-op in front of St. John’s church, explaining the violence in the days before was ‘so bad that, as it’s been reported, Secret Service recommended the president go down to the shelter.’
‘We had a breach of the Treasury Department,’ he continued, which sits next to the White House. ‘The historical building Lafayette park war burned won, the lodge, St. John’s was set on fire. Bricks were thrown at the police repeatedly. They took crow bars and pried up the pavers on Lafayette Park and threw those at the police. Balloons of caustic liquid were thrown on the police.’
Barr testified when got to the White House Monday, June 1, there was a ‘total concensus that we could not allow that to happen so close to the White House, that kind of rioting.’
A decision was made to move the perimeter one block north.
‘During Monday, the factors that led to the timing of it were that that movement was going to be made as soon as there were enough units in place to actually perform it,’ Barr explained. ‘Units were very slow in getting into place throughout the day, much to my frustration, because I wanted it moved before there was a big build-up of demonstrators.’
Protesters were teargassed and cleared from H Street as Trump was holding a Rose Garden press conference.
Several moments later, the president emerged from the White House, walked across Lafayette park and hoisted up a Bible in front of St. John’s church.
‘I would say the crowd was very unruly,’ Barr said, despite footage from the incident showing people standing around and then getting assaulted.
He again denied the clearing had anything to do with Trump’s photo-op.
And he said ‘teargas’ wasn’t used, despite media crews finding cannisters that contained the compound commonly referred to as teargas.
‘I think it’s a very important non-lethal option. For rioters,’ Barr answered later in the hearing. ‘When people resist law enforcement, they’re not peaceful.’
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, asked Barr if the point of the teargas was to secure St. John’s church.
‘No I didn’t say that,’ Barr said. ‘I made very clear that the purpose was to move the perimeter to I Street.’
Raskin and then later Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, questioned why Barr sent federal forces to deal with Black Lives Matter protesters, but not to Michigan when Trump-aligned demonstrators showed up at the state capitol with guns to object to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
‘You are aware of certain kinds of protesters, but in Michigan when protesters carry guns and Confederate flags and Swastikas and call for the governor of Michigan to be beheaded and shot and lynched somehow you’re not aware of that, somehow you didn’t know about it so you didn’t send federal agents in to do to the president’s supporters what you did to the president’s protesters,’ Jayapal told Barr.
Jayapal pointed out that ‘there is a real discrepency in how you react as the attorney general … 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.’
‘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,’ Jayapal said, accusing Barr.
Barr answered by explaining Michigan, at its state capitol, could defend itself, while the federal forces in Portland and Washington, D.C. were defending federal property.
At another moment, when Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko referenced Jayapal as she questioned Barr about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest, Jayapal went after the Republican lawmaker too, for mispronouncing her name.
‘If you’re going to say my name, please say it right,’ Jayapal said confronting Lesko.
Lesko had asked Barr to explain why the so-call autonomous zones represented a threat.
‘It’s quite an outrage that people would use force to take over an area,’ Barr said.
But then he went further, pointing out, ‘the leaders of one of our great two political parties, the Democratic Party, are not coming out and condemning mob violence and the attack on federal courts.’
‘Why can’t we just say violence against federal courts has to stop. Can we hear something like that?’ Barr said, being met with silence.
As the hearing pressed on into nearly a fourth hour, tensions continued to be high between members of the two parties.
Nadler called out his Republican colleagues for not putting back on their masks after they spoke. The current policy on Capitol Hill calls for masks to be worn in the hearing rooms unless a member is speaking. Nadler said drinking coffee didn’t count.
Jordan called attention to the Democrats interrupting the attorney general before he could answer their questions.
Nadler responded by saying, ‘The gentleman’s rudeness is not recognized.’
Then, when Barr asked for a five-minute break, Nadler first said no.
‘You’re a real class act,’ Barr muttered.
Barr pointed out that he had waited nearly an hour for the New York Democrat to arrive on Capitol Hill after his a.m. car accident.
With that, Nadler allowed the five minute break to occur.
As the hearing sped toward conclusion Jordan interrupted several times to point out that Democrats had suggested Barr was responsible for killing Americans and refusing to uphold his oath to the Constitution, a coment made by Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat.
‘My loyalty is to the Constitution, that’s why I came into government,’ Barr responded.
‘The lady just accused him of not adhering to his oath of office, let him talk – holy – she just accused the attorney general of the United States of not adhering to his oath, let him speak,’ Jordan yelled.
‘Even worse,’ Barr said.
And with several bangs of the gavel Nadler called the hearing adjourned.
Barr asserted Roger Stone and Michael Flynn were not treated fairly by prosecutors claiming Justice Department individuals were trying to levy harsher sentences because of their relationships with President Donald Trump.
‘I agree the president’s friends do not deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people,’ the attorney general said.
‘The cases that are cited, the Stone case and the Flynn case – both cases where I determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law to make sure people are treated the same,’ he continued during Republican Representative Mike Jonhson’s questioning.
Barr acknowledged that it’s difficult for the Justice Department to treat everyone fairly ‘especially when you know you will be castigated’ for decisions and outcomes.
‘But that is what the rule of law is and that’s what fairness to the individual ultimately comes to – being willing to do what’s right for the individual,’ he assured.
Johnson replied to Barr’s response with an ‘Amen.’
Stone served as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and General Flynn served as the president’s national security adviser for only one month in the beginning of his presidency.
Both men faced lawsuits involving their time with Trump and their communications with Russia – as related to the investigation into the Kremlin interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
A court in Washington D.C. recommended Stone serve between seven and nine years for lying to Congress.
Trump and senior administration officials decried the decision as a ‘miscarriage of justice,’ prompting speculation that there was political interference, with critics claiming the sentencing should have actually been more harsh.
‘Stone was prosecuted under me, and I said all along I thought that was a righteous prosecution,’ Barr told House lawmakers during the oversight hearing Tuesday. ‘I thought he should go to jail, and I thought the judge’s sentence was correct.’
‘But the lying prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice what anyone else in a similar position had ever served,’ he claimed.
‘And this is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence,’ the Attorney General said of Stone. ‘And they were trying to put him in jail for seven to nine years. And I wasn’t going to advocate that, because that is not the rule of law.’
On July 10, 2020, Trump commuted his former campaign aide’s sentence – just days before he was set to report to prison.
Flynn was also charged during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but he agreed to a plea bargain in a D.C. court.
As part of the agreement, and in a show of cooperation with Mueller’s investigation, the three-star retired general pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
Trump publicly called for the charged against his former adviser to be dropped.
Flynn was never officially sentenced, with his hearing being indefinitely postponed just one day before the scheduled date amid appeals and developing information – including his claim that his previous lawyers violated his constitutional rights by providing inadequate legal counsel.
Barr declared in February of this year that Flynn’s case would be reviewed by a Trump-appointed prosecutor, who ultimately recommended in the spring that Barr drop the charges .
The U.S. attorney general took that recommendation.