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, and in multiple exchanges he and the lawmakers raised their voices and interrupted one another. When Democrats cut off Barr during their time to question him, he often used the next round of Republican questioning as a chance to respond.
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 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. 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 legal arguments surrounding the census.
“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 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.
“Spying, that one word, that’s why they’re after you, Mr. Attorney General,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the panel’s top Republican, 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.”
Republican lawmakers praised Barr’s response to violence occurring at protests across the country. Jordan 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 which did not involve another vehicle, the spokesman said.
Barr had never previously appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. 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. 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
“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 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 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.
“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.
Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, charged that Barr was incorrect that the justice system had been made equal.
“I said the law, I said the laws were made equal,” Barr said.
“The laws were made equal; they are certainly not applied equally,” Bass responded. “We do have systemic problems in our law enforcement system, our criminal justice system, on every level.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.