'What enemies have I indicted?' Four takeaways as William Barr spars with House Democrats

Opening statement 'reads like it was written by Alex Jones or Roger Stone,' Democrat tells attorney general

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday 28 July 2020 20:11
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Bill Barr insists he did not intervene to help Donald Trump's friends

Attorney General William Barr sustained a number of attacks from House Democrats during a sometimes-contentious hearing on Tuesday, managing to deliver a few shots of his own.

Mr Barr took a rhetorical lashing from the start during a hearing, delayed in dramatic fashion when House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler was involved in a minor car accident, as the New York Democrat came out firing. He accused Mr Barr of waging a "war" on his own Justice Department to "protect" his boss, the president.

A two-time Cabinet member and no stranger to the hot seat before a committee controlled by hostile Democrats, Mr Barr toggled between listening to the opposition party's charges of corruption and presidential interference by sitting stone-faced or raising his voice during several tense exchanges.

Congressman Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, told the AG his prepared opening statement "reads like it was written by Alex Jones or Roger Stone," referring to the far-right commentator who specialises in conspiracy theories and the former campaign adviser whose jail sentence Mr Trump recently commuted. Mr Barr barely responded, his face remaining stoic.

At other times, like when pressed on why he overruled Justice Department prosecutors in recommending a lighter-than-suggested sentence for Mr Stone, he let himself get emotional. "The judge agreed with me," he roared.

Here are a handful of takeaways from one of this year's most-anticipated Capitol Hill hearings.

Roger Stone

When pressed repeatedly by Democrats over Stone's sentence for lying to Congress about his contacts with Wikileaks, the AG defended both his stance and Mr Trump's pardon of his longtime friend.

"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 said.

"And sometimes that's a difficult decision to make, especially when you know you're going to be castigated for it," he added. "But that is what the rule of law is, and that's what fairness to the individual ultimately comes to."

Mr Johnson said it appears to Democrats that reducing Stone's recommended sentence he was merely doing "what the president wanted you to do". But the AG rejected that notion, saying the prosecutor's recommended sentence of up to nine years "wasn't in line with department policy" for a man as old as the 67-year-old Stone.

A few moments later, Congressman Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, asked Mr Stone if, during his second turn as attorney general, he has overruled any other sentencing recommendation. Mr Barr admitted he has not.

Presidential powers

Judiciary Democrats spent much of the day painting Mr Trump as corrupt and abusing his power. (That was one of the articles of impeachment they passed against the president.)

Several zeroed in on the Stone pardon, saying it showed an out-of-control chief executive. But Barr landed a blow against the Democrats' attack line with one simple question.

"What enemies have I indicted?" he asked of critics or political foes of Mr Trump.

And about Stone, he said this: "I said all along I thought that was a righteous prosecution. ... I felt he should have been in jail."

Congressman Tom McClintock, a California Republican, served up a softball, but an important one legally about Mr Trump's use of the pardon power. "Has the president exceeded that power?" he asked, with the AG replying: "No."

Dateline: Portland

The country's top lawyer, whom Democrats say often acts more like the president's personal attorney, went on the offence several times while arguing pointedly that federal police deployed to Portland are operating "on defence".

Time and again, he accused protesters in the Oregon city of being anything but "peaceful," and accusing them of using high-grade fireworks and other devices to try setting ablaze a federal courthouse there. His officers are merely trying to "protect" federal property, adding "we're not out looking for trouble."

Video footage has shown protesters and federal police in physical confrontations, with the former using all kinds of items to throw at police and the latter using weapons against them. It is difficult, and sometimes not possible, to tell from those videos which side started those physical clashes.

Odds & ends

Stone: Is the Justice Department investigating the president for pressing the DOJ to alter the initial sentencing recommendation in the Stone case? He shot back: "Why should I?"

Election security: Mr Barr would not rule out this or any president having legal grounds to at least try delaying an election. "I've never been asked the question before," he told the committee, saying he has never studied the matter.

Some Democrats, Trump critics and legal experts worry Mr Trump may try to delay the 3 November election amid the coronavirus pandemic, his rancid poll numbers and his concerns about voting fraud caused by an expected increase in mailed-in ballots. But some legal experts and former federal officials say that only Congress can change the date of a presidential election, noting Democrats control the House and could block a 60-vote threshold any Senate bill to that end would need to clear that chamber.

'Rigged' election? Mr Trump says an increase in voting-by-mail will lead to one – and one that he would inevitably lose because Democrats vote by mail more often. On this, the attorney general said he thinks if the election went 100 per cent online due to the coronavirus, there would be a "substantially higher" risk of widespread fraud. But when pressed if he believes the 2020 race will be rigged, he replied, breaking with his boss: "I have no reason to think it will be."

Veepstakes: Two black women reportedly near the top of former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate shortlist, Val Demings of Florida and Karen Bass of California, got chances to grill Mr Barr.

Ms Bass pressed the AG on police officers' use of force, including certain tactics to subdue suspects, chokeholds and other matters. Ms Demings asked Mr Barr, reminding him he was under oath, to state that Mr Trump had never asked him to do anything specific related to a criminal case; he said his boss has not done so.

Both potential Democratic vice presidential nominees were cogent, direct and showed their law enforcement and prosecutorial backgrounds.

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