Attorney General Barr testifies before Congress. Ava DeSantis writes what you should know about Democratic allegations against Barr, and the Republican defense.
On Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr testified before Congress for the first time in his long government career. Attorney General Barr served in George H.W. Bush’s Administration, and left retirement to serve again in President Trump’s Administration. House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee accused Barr of undermining the purpose of the Department of Justice, while Republicans on the Committee offered their time for Barr to defend his actions and questioned the motive of Democratic criticism.
Chairman of the committee Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, began the hearing by recounting the history of the Department of Justice. “First, we wanted to replace a system of party spoils with a core of professional government attorneys,” Nadler explained, “the department would rely on a foundation of professionals, dedicated to the impartial administration of the law, and [an] unbiased system of justice. Second, Congress established the Department of Justice to enforce the nation’s first civil rights laws, after the Civil War.”
The Department must be committed to “[ensuring] the right to vote” and “[stemming] the tide of systemic racism.” These goals, Nadler alleged, Barr has undermined in order to “secure favors for the President.” Most notably, Nadler accused Barr of violating constitutional rights by sending federal forces to antagonize peaceful protestors and suppress dissent, failing to address systemic racism in US police departments, spreading disinformation about voter fraud, failing to enforce voting rights, attempting to change census rules to benefit the Trump campaign, blatantly misrepresenting the Mueller report to shield the President from accountability, and personally interfering with criminal investigations to protect the President’s allies.
Suppression of dissent
Rep. Jerry Nadler’s Democratic colleagues pressed Barr on each of Nadler’s accusations, within their five-minute individual examination periods. Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California led, alleging that the President is intentionally using federal forces in Portland, Oregon, where troops have been deployed to handle protestors, to distract from his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Millions of Americans have been infected, tens of thousands are dying, and the President needs to divert from that failure,” said Lofgren. “The playbook is to create the impression that there is violence that he must send in federal troops and that the American people should be afraid of other Americans and trust the President because he’s going to send troops to American cities, and that’s how he hopes to win the election.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, continuing along this line of questioning, claimed the Department of Justice has allowed these troops to violate the constitutional rights of these protestors. “Armed federal agents [in Portland] violently attacked demonstrators in a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly.” These forces, said Cohen, also violated the Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Amendments. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fifth Amendment affords every citizen the right to due process, and the Tenth Amendment describes policing as a power left to the states.
Rep. Ted Lieu from California urged Barr to “instruct your federal officials to comply with the Constitution.”
Democrats believe that federal troops have violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights of protestors, with the dual political motivations of distracting from the COVID-19 crisis and punishing his opponents. Rep Pramila Jayapal from Washington state recounted the disparities between Trump Administration’s treatment of white supremacist protestors of stay-at-home orders.
“You are aware of certain kinds of protestors but in Michigan, when protestors carry guns and Confederate flags and swastikas and call for the governor of Michigan to be beheaded and shot and lynched, somehow, you’re not aware of that,” Rep. Jayapal summarized Barr’s responses to her earlier questions. “Somehow you didn’t know about it, so you didn’t send federal agents in to do to the President’s supporters, what you did to the President’s protestors…The point I’m trying to make here, Mr. Barr, that I think is very important for the country to understand is that there is a real discrepancy in how you react, as the Attorney General.”
Failure to address systemic racism
The Department of Justice has the power to bring suits against police departments which violate federal law. Democratic congresspeople believe Attorney General Barr has intentionally restrained from using this power, allowing police departments free reign within their respective jurisdictions. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said to the Attorney General, “you seem to have a difficult time understanding systemic racism and institutional racism that has plagued so many.”
“Mr. Attorney General,” Lee asked, “do you understand a Black mother’s or parents’ talk to their child?” When Barr replied “I think so,” Lee said “I don’t know if you do.” Black mothers and fathers, she explained, “have had to talk to their sons about police violence.”
Barr refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, in police departments or elsewhere, saying “to the extent that there is racism in any of our institutions in this country and the police, then obviously this administration will fully enforce [federal law].” In cases of excessive force or apparent racial bias, Barr believes the solution is not punishment but additional training of and resources for the police.
Although he claims to have an ideological issue with using the courts to maintain police accountability, favoring training as a solution to systemic racism, when pressed on his failure to enforce federal anti-discrimination policy, Barr did not cite ideology. Instead, Barr said this year “very few jurisdictions had grand juries that were open” due to COVID-19 outbreaks and stay-at-home orders in various states. Lee replied “I think the reason is because it really was not your focus, your focus was more to help out friends like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort.”
Rep. Karen Bass of California added that Barr has not only neglected to hold police departments with disproportionate arrests of people of color accountable, but has not evaluated the use of force tactics since becoming Attorney General. Excessive force, Bass said, “is costing lives.”
Disinformation on census and mail-in voting
Barr was accused of working to hurt immigrant and African American communities through voter suppression and census meddling. Barr, according to Democrats, is attempting to punish Black voters by spreading unfounded claims about the danger of mail-in ballots. Barr has himself voted by absentee ballot, but defended his argument against a “wholesale conversion of an election to mail-in voting.”
During Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon’s examination, Barr admitted that he had no evidence a mail-in election would lead to fraud, despite repeatedly claming it would. “But, in fact,” Scanlon pressed, “you have no evidence that foreign countries can successfully sway elections with counterfeit ballots.” Barr replied, “No, I don’t. But I have common sense.”
The Attorney General was seemingly unphased by the danger in-person voting poses to citizens, particularly African Americans. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana asked “you do understand that African Americans disproportionately do not survive COVID-19?” Barr replied “yes, I think so.”
Last year, Barr attempted to find a legal loophole to allow President Trump to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The citizenship question would likely make immigrant communities underrepresented in the census, resulting in less federal funding for programs to serve these communities. Democratic congresspeople view this work as further evidence that Barr is a politically motivated agent of President Trump, not a purveyor of equal justice.
“My district, sir, is a working-class, hard working community of immigrants. All we want is equity, based on the census, we want to make sure we get our federal dollars like everybody else around the country.” Rep. Lou Correa of California pleaded with the Attorney General to accept the Supreme Court’s decision to remove the citizenship question. “All we ask for is respect, sir. I ask you, please tell the President: stop tweeting things, stop writing memos that are clearly, clearly unconstitutional.”
Misrepresenting the Mueller report
In March 2019, Attorney General Barr released a letter summarizing the Mueller report, in his own words. Mueller himself objected to the letter, stating publicly “the summary the Department sent to Congress and released to the public” did not “fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusion.”
Tuesday, Democratic congresspeople accused Barr of continuing to mislead the public about the Mueller report to protect President Trump. Barr referred to the report as the ‘Russia Gate Scandal,’ and is currently investigating the motives behind the Mueller investigation. The congresspeople said this label implies the investigation was “politically motivated.”
Interfering with criminal cases to protect the President’s allies
Barr was accused not only of protecting the President’s political motivations and personal reputation, but of protecting the President’s friends and allies. Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida highlighted the case against Roger Stone, alleging that Barr lowered the sentencing recommendations for Stone because of Stone’s relationship with the President.
In February, Roger Stone was convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness, and obstructing the House investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. During sentencing, Attorney General Barr recommended Stone be given a lower sentence than his colleagues initially recommended. Deutch questioned Barr’s impartiality in this decision, saying “the issue here is whether Roger Stone was treated differently because he was friends with a President.”
“Attorney General, can you think of any other cases where the defendant threatened to kill a witness,”and “lied to a judge, where the Department of Justice claimed that those were technicalities?” Deutch asked. Barr could not name a similar case. He did, however, confirm that he did not discuss Stone’s sentencing with President Trump or “anyone outside the Department of Justice.”
Rep. Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia, pressed Barr on the suspicious timeline of his choice to lower the sentencing recommendation. “Isn’t it true,” he asked, “that when prosecutors in the Roger Stone case filed a memo with the court recommending a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, a few hours later, President Trump tweeted that the sentence recommendation was ‘a disgrace?’ Barr confirmed this timeline, but did not confirm or deny any connection between Trump’s tweeting and his recommendation.
Republicans disagreed vehemently with their Democratic counterparts on everything from Barr’s conduct, to the nature of protests throughout the country and federal agents in Portland. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio claimed that allegations of Barr’s misconduct were wholly invented. The first republican to speak at the hearing, Jordan began “spying. That one word. That’s why they’re after you, Mr. Attorney General… In a Senate hearing, you said ‘I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.’… Since that day, when you had the courage to state the truth, they attacked you. They’ve simply been attacking you since every day, every week for simply stating the truth that the Obama Biden administration spied on the Trump campaign.” This issue was not raised again by any congressperson on either side of the aisle.
On sending federal agents to combat protestors, Jordan thanked Barr for “standing up for the rule of law.” Jordan used the remainder of his time allotted for questioning to play a video, clips of reporters referring to actions as “peaceful protests” overlaid with clips of burning buildings and projectiles being thrown.
Other Republicans lended their time to the Attorney General to defend his actions. One representative asking “the Democrats have asserted here this morning and they continue to say in the media that under your leadership, the Justice Department has become highly politicized. Why is that a totally unfounded allegation?
Barr responded “because actually what I am trying to do is restore the rule of law and the rule of law is in essence that we have one rule for everybody, if you apply one rule today the same rule applies [tomorrow].” Republican congresspeople nodded in agreement. Barr further alleged that ‘violence’ would spread if federal agents were not deployed in Portland.
Republicans also lended their time for Barr to comment on the Seattle Autonomous Zone, where protestors have created a police-free area of their city. Barr called the zone “outrageous,” and the Democratic response concerning. It is “the first time in my memory that the leaders of one of our great two political parties, the Democratic Party, are not coming out and condemning mob violence,” said Barr.
Barr said his rule-of-law approach is immune to political bias. The choices that he made on the Stone case, said Barr, were an expression of this approach. “I agree the President’s friends don’t deserve special breaks,” he testified, “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, but that is what the rule of law is.”
The views of partisan committee members divided sharply on Barr. These divisions eventually devolved the hearing into an argument over procedure, Republicans complaining that Democrats did not allow Barr to defend himself and Democrats complaining of Barr’s interruptions. The hearing ended in the midst of one of these heated disputes.