Barr appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in a long-awaited showdown with Democrats, who have accused Barr of a litany of offenses and raised the specter of impeachment.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, pressed Barr on whether the deployment of federal troops 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 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 charges, 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?”
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.
“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. “The message these actions send is clear: in this Justice Department, the President’s enemies will be punished and his friends will be protected, no matter the cost.”
‘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 praised Barr’s response to violence occurring at protests across the country. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the panel’s top Republican, 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, a spokesman said. Nadler was not injured in the accident, in which he was not driving and did not involve another vehicle, the spokesman said.
Republican lawmakers had a whole 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.
“Spying, that one word, that’s why they’re after you, Mr. Attorney General,” Jordan said, a reference to Barr’s comments last year about FBI surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser. “I want to thank you for having the courage to say we’re going to get the politics out of the Department of Justice that was there in the previous administration.”
Barr had never previously appeared before the House Judiciary Committee — either while attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration or since his February 2019 Senate confirmation. He last appeared on Capitol Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2019, when he defended his decision-making in the rollout of the special counsel report, which Democrats charge skewed Mueller’s findings. More than one year removed, the Mueller saga will 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
Barr said that he has made clear to the Trump administration that he “would like to pick the cities” where federal law enforcement officers are deployed under a Justice Department crime-fighting program “based on law enforcement need.”
Nadler, in the hearing’s first set of questions, had tried to suggest that Barr’s expansion of Operation Legend was done as a political move to boost the President’s campaign, but Barr disputed that. Barr described how a predecessor program to Legend had been “squelched” by the pandemic, necessitating the “reboot” under the new operation.
Barr would not say whether he had discussed the deployment of federal officers to American cities in the context of the election with the President. Barr also said Nadler was conflating federal law enforcement’s response to riots in Portland with Operation Legend, which is focused on tamping down violent crime.
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 shield law enforcement officers from accountability.
“I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in the police department generally in this country,” Barr said, adding that he did not support an end to qualified immunity.
Barr called the killing of Floyd “horrible,” saying it “understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on longstanding 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.”
He acknowledged the Black community feels they are treated unfairly by police, calling the concern “legitimate,” but he rejected the idea of “deep-seated racism” within police departments.
Tuesday’s testimony comes after Nadler held hearings on the politicization of the Justice Department and brought in high-profile witnesses.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.