In a showdown on Capitol Hill that lasted more than four hours, House Democrats clashed with Attorney General William Barr for his involvement in the Justice Department (DOJ) deployment of federal law enforcement in cities and handling of the prosecutions of President Donald Trump’s allies and associates.
“In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of this president”, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in his opening statement.
Nadler added that Barr and the DOJ have “downplayed the effects of systemic racism,” referring to violent protests and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, and also noted that “the president’s enemies will be punished, his friends will be protected.”
Following Nadler’s opening remarks, ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) quickly emphasized the idea of “spying," signaling accusations surrounding Barack Obama’s administration for spying on Trump’s campaign in 2016. Jordan then went on to display a long video with reporters uttering “peaceful protests,” as video clips presented violent riots and protests -- with people burning down buildings, vandalizing property and smashing police cars.
Barr insisted during the hearing -- which was his first time appearing before the committee after Nadler threatened to subpoena him -- that he has “complete freedom” and that Trump “has not attempted to interfere” with his criminal decisions.
"On the contrary, he has told me from the start that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment to make whatever call I think is right," Barr said. "That is precisely what I have done."
The attorney general also defended the criminal justice system and said that movements to defund the police are “grossly irresponsible” and refuted the uproar in violent protests across the country.
“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.
After a series of opening statements, tensions grew between House Democrats and Barr.
Nadler, and other House Democrats, condemned Barr and the Trump Administration for using the DOJ deployment of federal officers in cities for political gain and to boost the president’s support. Nadler said Barr is “projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives.”
Barr lashed out at these allegations, saying that the force was needed, specifically in Portland, Oregon, to protect federal buildings and the city's citizens.
"Federal courts are under attack. Since when is it okay to burn down a federal court," Barr said.
"If someone went down the street to the Prettyman Court here, that beautiful courthouse we have right at the bottom of the hill and started breaking windows and firing industrial-grade fireworks in to start a fire, throw kerosene balloons in and start fires in the court, is that okay? Is that okay now? No, the U.S. Marshals have a duty to stop that and defend the courthouse, and that’s what we are doing in Portland. We are at the courthouse, defending the courthouse,” Barr added.
Barr also defended himself against claims of the politicization of the DOJ, noting that “intervention was necessary” in the prosecutions of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn -- both known to be Trump’s allies.
"Stone was prosecuted under me. And I said all along I thought that was a righteous prosecution, I thought he should go to jail, and I thought the judge’s sentence was correct," Barr said.
The attorney general added that the line prosecutors fought for a sentence that was unrealistic and unfair for a 67-year-old man who is a “first-time offender, no violence.” The prosecutors advocated for jail time of up to nine years, according to Barr.
"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,” he continued.
A number of House Democrats pressed Barr -- mainly about issues surrounding systemic racism and policing.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) posed questions about how the Trump Administration plans to handle the inherent systemic racism, especially in policing, but Barr shot back and said, “I don’t agree there's systemic racism in the police department, generally in this country.”
Other Democrats, including Reps. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) interrogated Barr, giving him nearly no time to respond. Jordan continuously defended Barr, asking the committee chairman why Barr wasn’t granted proper response time and why colleagues are allowed to speak over the witness.
"This is a hearing," Barr said. "I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard?"
"If you want the attorney general to come at least let him answer the accusations made against him...Time after time you refuse to let the attorney general answer the questions posed to him," the ranking member said.
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.