Attorney General William Barr made a defiant appearance before a House committee on Tuesday, rejecting claims that he’d improperly interfered in the prosecutorial decision-making process to benefit President Donald Trump’s allies and defending the deployment of federal agents to cities against the wishes of local leaders.
Barr, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time since he was sworn in last February, has faced withering criticism from Democrats since his early days in office, when he mischaracterized the findings of Robert Mueller’s special counsel report ahead of its release. More recently, Barr has come under fire for his handling of cases against Trump associates Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, his involvement in the firing of a top federal prosecutor overseeing cases against other Trump associates, and his oversight of the federal law enforcement response to protests in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the nation following the police killing of George Floyd in May.
Democrats on the committee used much of their time Tuesday laying out complaints about Barr’s tenure to date, and most didn’t end up asking questions that generated news-making answers from the attorney general.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused Barr of engaging in a “persistent war against the department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the president,” and of “seeking out conflict with American citizens” who were protesting against the government.
In his opening statement, Barr downplayed the threat of police violence against Black Americans, calling the “shocking” death of Floyd “quite rare” and raising a familiar retort about Black-on-Black crime, claiming the “threat to Black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct.” He did acknowledge that Black Americans’ concerns about improper treatment by police “are legitimate,” but later denied the existence of systemic racism in policing ― an institution deeply intertwined with the racism embedded in American history.
After Barr referenced the late Rep. John Lewis in his opening statement and downplayed the existence of systemic racism in American life, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said that the makeup of Barr’s own staff shows the reality of American racism.
“One thing that you have in common with your two predecessors ― both Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions and Attorney General [Matthew] Whitaker ― is that when you all came here and brought your top staff, you brought no Black people. That, sir, is systematic racism. That is exactly what John Lewis spent his life fighting,” Richmond said. “And so I would suggest that actions speak louder than words, and you really should keep the name of the Honorable John Lewis out of the Department of Justice’s mouth.”
Barr said he’s been “trying to restore the rule of law” to the Justice Department, and that Trump “has not attempted to interfere” in his decisions. Trump has routinely disparaged federal prosecutors and FBI agents in public, and shattered norms concerning how presidents speak about ongoing federal investigations and prosecutions.
But Barr claimed Trump “has played a role properly and traditionally played by presidents” and only “occasionally, and appropriately” mentioned that the Justice Department is aware of key events. Barr claimed DOJ decisions have been left to his “independent judgment, based on the law and fact, without any direction or interference from the White House or anyone outside the Department.”
Barr hasn’t made a habit of reviewing all of the Justice Department’s prosecutorial decisions, an impossible task given the massive scope of DOJ’s criminal caseload. The cases that have received special attention and review from the nation’s attorney general have involved the president’s allies. In the Stone case, Barr claimed prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation was too harsh. He dismissed the case against Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to federal charges.
“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,” Barr said Tuesday.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.