Portland protests, police brutality, and Roger Stone: Trump's AG Barr defends his record before aggressive Democrat questioning

‘I’m telling my story — that’s what I’m here to do,’ Mr Barr says

Griffin Connolly
Tuesday 28 July 2020 22:54
Barr insists federal agents in Portland are 'not looking for trouble'

House Democrats have been waiting for nearly 18 months to bring William Barr in for testimony since he took over as attorney general for Donald Trump in February 2019.

They did not hold back on Tuesday, grilling Mr Barr for nearly six hours about the state of policing in the US amid the recent wave of anti-police brutality protests; his decision to deploy federal law enforcement agents to cities such as Portland, Oregon, where they have been accused of using excessive force on protesters and violating the Fourth Amendment; and his intervening actions in the prosecutions of two of the president’s political allies, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

Several Democrats on the Judiciary panel that hosted Mr Barr on Tuesday have pushed for his impeachment on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

The committee’s chairman, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, has not gone quite that far.

But he did tell Mr Barr to his face on Tuesday that his tenure has been “marked by a persistent war against the Department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favours for the president”.

Mr Nadler, whose car crashed on the way to the hearing, delaying it by an hour, added: “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.”

Mr Barr, for his part, sought to defend his actions under Mr Trump as the chief executor of criminal and civil law in the US — from his handling of the special counsel report of Robert Mueller on 2016 Russian election interference, to his perceived antagonism of federal prosecutorial offices such as the Southern District of New York thought to be investigating some of Mr Trump’s allies, to his dispersal of peaceful protesters near the White House last month to clear the path for Mr Trump’s photo op at nearby St John’s Episcopal Church.

He had no relationship with the president before accepting his nomination to be attorney general, and had been more than prepared to “slip happily into retirement”, he said at the outset of the hearing.

“I’m telling my story — that’s what I’m here to do,” Mr Barr later said amid a testy exchange with Georgia Republican Congressman Hank Johnson, one of several Democrats who repeatedly interrupted Mr Barr to “reclaim” their time after asking him questions so they could move onto another.

Portland protests and policing

Democratic lawmakers hammered Mr Barr for sending federal law enforcement units to US cities, where independent journalists and others have accused them on social media of driving unmarked cars and seizing people from the street without explanation in recent days.

Footage released on social media and other platforms has also shown agents using excessive force against people ostensibly demonstrating against the deaths in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and others.

“Under your leadership, the Department has endangered Americans and violated their constitutional rights by flooding federal law enforcement into the streets of American cities, against the wishes of the state and local leaders of those cities, to forcefully and unconstitutionally suppress dissent,” Mr Nadler said.

Mr Barr denied Mr Nadler’s characterisation that federal agents are “flooding” into cities, or that they are targeting peaceful protesters — a denial that runs counter to the first-hand accounts of many people on the ground in Portland who have said they’ve been tear-gassed by the feds despite demonstrating peacefully.

“We are on the defence [in Portland]. We’re not out looking for trouble,” Mr Barr testified on Tuesday.

“If the state and the city would provide the law enforcement services that other jurisdictions do, we would have no need to have additional marshals in the courthouse,” Mr Barr said, arguing that, for weeks, violent protesters have attempted to besiege the federal US courthouse in Portland.

“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,” he said.

Republican lawmakers on the panel largely deferred to Mr Barr’s characterisation of events in Portland and the DOJ’s actions. The ranking member on the committee, Jim Jordan, played a video montage on the committee room’s monitor of recent footage of riots in US cities, including instances where protesters have assaulted and harassed police officers.

When confronted by Democrats with individual examples of federal agents using excessive force on protesters, Mr Barr deferred to an internal DOJ investigation into the feds’ tactics that the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, launched earlier this week.

Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California pushed back on Mr Barr and Republicans’ characterisation of the scene in Portland, saying “most of [the protesters] are nonviolent” and that the presence of the federal troops has precipitated even more violence.

“The reaction has actually been in reverse proportion — people are showing up because the troops are there,” Ms Lofgren said.

Ms Lofgren and other Democrats on the Judiciary panel accused Mr Barr of deploying federal units to Portland to distract public attention away from Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his freefall in polls against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, a consideration Mr Barr and Republicans dismissed.

All the president’s men

Mr Barr also faced a grilling over his recent decisions to intervene in the separate DOJ prosecutions of Mr Stone and Mr Flynn, two former aides to Mr Trump and his 2016 campaign.

His decisions to intervene on behalf of the president’s political allies were predicated purely on a sense of fairness and adherence to DOJ protocol, he said.

“The president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks. But they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people,” Mr Barr testified on Tuesday.

Mr Flynn, Mr Trump’s erstwhile national security adviser, twice pleaded guilty in recent years to lying to the FBI about his conversations in 2016 and 2017 with former Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, before revoking that guilty plea earlier this year.

Earlier this year, Mr Barr instructed prosecutors on Mr Flynn’s case to drop it, arguing in a court memorandum that it was “untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr Flynn” and that it was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”

Mr Stone was convicted earlier this year of lying to Congress during the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016. Mr Trump commuted his prison sentence earlier this month.

Mr Barr had personally stepped in on the Stone case to ask the judge for a shorter sentence for the convicted felon than the lower-level DOJ prosecutors who had worked the case for years had asked for.

“Sometimes that’s a difficult decision to make, especially when you know you’re going to be castigated for it,” Mr Barr said.

“But that is what the rule of law is, and that’s what fairness to the individual ultimately comes to,” he said.

The DOJ’s initial sentencing request of seven to nine years in prison was too extreme for an elderly, non-violent criminal with no previous convictions, he indicated.

“Let me ask you: Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?” Mr Barr said during another exchange with Mr Johnson, the Georgia Democrat.

A New York prosecutor’s fate

Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings, one of Mr Biden’s potential vice presidential running mates, used her five minutes to question Mr Barr about the controversial ouster of former federal district attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York (SDNY), whose office was believed to be investigating offshoot threads of inquiry from Mr Mueller’s report involving Mr Trump and his inner circle.

In June, Mr Barr announced Mr Berman would be stepping down from his post.

That came as news to Mr Berman, who had never told his superiors at the DOJ he was resigning.

The district attorney initially refused Mr Barr’s request to step down, setting up a showdown between the two men.

“[Mr Berman] maybe didn’t know it,” but he was being forced to step down, Mr Barr testified on Tuesday.

He later corrected that statement: “He was removed,” Mr Barr said.

No systemic racism?

Perhaps most central to the disconnect between Mr Barr and House Democrats at the hearing on Tuesday is their fundamental disagreement about the role of police departments in society and how much racism still affects — or doesn’t — those local institutions.

“I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments generally in this country,” Mr Barr testified on Tuesday, echoing statements from other Trump administration officials in response to the protests against Mr Floyd’s death.

To fix law enforcement, Barr must “recognise that institutional racism does exist,” said Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

“Until we accept that, we will not finish our job and reach the goals and aspiration of our late iconic John Lewis” to reform policing in the US and root out its racist elements, she said.

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