Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America, saying on Tuesday “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Barr told members of the House Judiciary Committee at a much-anticipated election-year hearing 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.
"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 House Judiciary Committee, bringing him face-to-face with a panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats allege is the politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. It comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Barr has taken actions cheered by President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics.
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.
“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 also excoriated Barr 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.
Republicans hit back hard in defense of Barr and Trump's administration. The top Republican on the panel, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, showed an eight-minute video that spliced together images of violence by protesters around the country, showcasing law enforcement officers under attack in Chicago, Portland and New York. The images were cut from hundreds of hours of racial injustice footage of largely peaceful protests around the nation.
Barr, in a prepared statement, defends the department in other controversies that have shadowed his tenure, including his handling of the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, which he derisively refers to as “the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal.” Barr didn't read that part of his statement in the hearing room, but it was in remarks sent out by the department.
Barr said “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. Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”
The testimony underscores the Justice 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, speaking as Congress and the public pay respects to the late Rep. John Lewis, 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. 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; 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 before a photo op by Trump in front of a church, where Barr had accompanied him.
Barr has defended as necessary the broad use of law enforcement power to deal with the situation, but the department’s internal watchdog has opened investigations into the use of force and other tactics by agents in those cities.
Beyond the federal response to the demonstrations, Barr was expected to be pressed in detail about his intervention in criminal cases arising from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The hearing will provide Barr with a forum to offer his most detailed account to date for his actions in the criminal cases, which he has said were taken in the interests of justice and without political pressure.
Those include the Justice Department's decision to drop the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn — a request now tied up in court.
Barr pushed for a more lenient sentence for another Trump ally, Roger Stone, prompting the entire trial team's departure. That decision was at the center of a hearing before the committee last month, when one of the prosecutors alleged politics from Justice Department leadership had influenced the handling of the sentence.
Barr has said that Flynn, who pleaded guilty as part of Mueller’s probe to lying to the FBI, should never have been charged and that the original sentencing recommendation for Stone — also charged in the Mueller investigation — was excessive.
Republican lawmakers have been overwhelmingly supportive of Barr's performance. Even among the GOP committee members, though, Barr faces pressure to deliver results soon on an investigation that he initiated into the origins of the Russia probe.
It’s unclear when or how that investigation, being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, will end. Barr has said he hopes to have results by the end of the summer.