Atty. Gen. William Barr on Tuesday aggressively defended the federal response to violence and protests at the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., and his decision to inject himself into criminal cases involving Tweety McTreason’s close associates.
The attorney general’s highly anticipated and contentious appearance before the House Judiciary Committee comes amid violent clashes between protesters and federal authorities in Portland and other cities, unrest that Democrats and local leaders said exploded in the days after federal agents were captured on video taking people into custody without probable cause and driving them away in unmarked vans.
“Every night for the past two months, a mob of hundreds of rioters has laid siege to the federal courthouse and other nearby federal property,” Barr told the House Judiciary Committee.
“The rioters arrive equipped for a fight, armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles and explosive devices. Inside the courthouse are a relatively small number of federal law enforcement personnel charged with a defensive mission: to protect the courthouse.”
“Since when is it OK to try to burn down a federal court?” he demanded, saying that federal agents were taking the necessary steps to protect federal property, particularly in Portland.
Local officials in Portland say that the presence of federal law enforcement agencies in the city has been inflaming the situation, making the violence worse, not better.
Barr has also come under attack from Democrats for ordering the violent clearing of protesters outside the White House on June 1, a move that allowed Trump to have his photograph taken holding a Bible outside a historic church across the street. Widespread protests, including those outside the White House, were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him at his neck while he was begging for air.
Democrats more broadly attacked Barr on Tuesday for amplifying Trump’s conspiracy theories, seeking to instigate confrontations with protesters to help Trump’s campaign and downplaying the role of racism in policing.
Barr testified he did not believe police departments were generally infected by deep-seated racism but understood why Black people felt they were often treated as “suspects first and citizens second.”
His insistence that police misconduct reflected isolated incidents rather than a system-wide problem drew rebukes from Democrats.
“The department is not doing enough to address issues of racism, bias and brutality in law enforcement,” said Rep Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). As head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass has led Democratic efforts to adopt legislation that would ban certain police practices, including chokeholds, nationwide and allow more lawsuits against police officers accused of misconduct.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the committee, cited Barr’s efforts to reduce the potential sentence of Roger Stone, a close associate of the president and self-admitted dirty trickster, and to seek to throw out the guilty plea of Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security advisor, to lying to the FBI.
“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.
Barr said such criticism was not fair, noting that his department has not indicted any political enemies of Trump, though he conceded he did help two of the president’s associates in criminal cases.
In February, Barr ordered federal prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for Stone. Barr said their recommendation of seven to nine years in prison was excessive, and the career prosecutors resigned from the case in protest. A federal judge ultimately sentenced Stone to 40 months in prison, in line with the prison term Barr believed was justified.
“The judge agreed with me,” Barr repeatedly said as Democratic members of the committee pressed him on the Stone sentencing.
Trump ultimately commuted Stone’s sentence earlier this month.
The attorney general has also supported the effort to throw out Flynn’s guilty plea to lying to federal agents about his conversations with a Russian diplomat during the presidential transition.
Barr said federal agents and prosecutors unfairly targeted Flynn. “The president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks and don’t deserve to be treated more harshly,” he said.
Flynn’s lawyers and prosecutors won a key appeals court ruling last month that ordered a federal judge to throw out the plea. The judge has asked the full appeals court to reconsider the order.
Republicans, meanwhile, defended Barr. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) the ranking Republican on the panel, attacked the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation, including obtaining warrants permitting clandestine surveillance on a former Trump campaign advisor.
“I want to thank you for having the courage to call it what it is: spying,” Jordan said. “I want to thank you for having the courage to say that we are getting politics out of the Department of Justice.”