Barr clashes with Dems over DOJ’s independence
House Judiciary Committee Democrats used their first-ever hearing with William Barr to berate the attorney general for what they charged was a breakdown in the independence of the justice system, accusing him of corrupting it to benefit President Donald Trump.
As they lobbed a series of charges against him over 5 hours — accusing him of spreading disinformation about voter fraud, fomenting systemic racism in policing and deploying federal security forces to crack down on lawful protests — Barr responded in kind, accusing the Democratic Party leadership of ignoring violence on city streets.
The hearing was a disjointed affair, with Democrats toggling between lengthy speeches skewering Barr for his stewardship of the Justice Department and seeking to wring new details from him about his role in politically sensitive matters — from the decision to drop the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn to his deployment of federal security forces against protesters in Washington D.C. and Portland.
Democrats went into the hearing intending to highlight a single theme: that Barr had distorted the Justice Department in service of Trump's political agenda. But the hearing at times grew testy, as Barr fought to respond to some of Democrats' allegations and the lawmakers repeatedly shut him down, accusing him of unleashing state-sanctioned violence on protests against police brutality and of spreading misinformation about the risk of mail-in voting.
Though the hearing broke little new ground, it underscored the intense distrust Democrats hold for Barr, a sentiment the attorney general at times reciprocated in his rebuttals.
Barr, for example, said he doesn't read Trump's tweets, despite previously urging the president to refrain from tweeting about Justice Department cases and saying they make it "impossible" to do his job.
His pronouncement came during an exchange with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who grilled Barr about whether he was aware of Trump's tweets praising longtime ally Roger Stone for having "guts" in his posture against cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.
During the exchange, Barr said he saw no basis to investigate the president for commuting Stone's 40-month sentence. Barr also offered new details about the Justice Department infighting that clouded the sentencing in Stone's case, rescinding career prosecutors' recommendation for a seven- to nine-year sentence and calling it excessive.
Barr indicated that the U.S. attorney for Washington D.C. at the time, longtime Barr aide Tim Shea, was under pressure from the Stone prosecutors to recommend the stiffer sentence for Stone, in part because they viewed his conviction on witness intimidation as worthy of a significant enhancement.
"I made the decision, no, we are going to leave it to the judge," Barr said. But the prosecutors, he said, issued their sentencing recommendation anyway, with Shea's acquiescence. "That evening, I told people we had to go back and correct that the next morning," Barr said.
When Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Col.) asked Barr to affirm under oath an earlier statement that the White House was fully cooperative with Mueller’s investigation, Barr said he believed the statement to be true at the time. When he attempted to elaborate, Neguse cut him off. As Neguse sought to continue his questioning, Barr interjected: “You said under penalty of perjury, I’m going to answer the damn question.”
Neguse also pressed Barr on his statement about the removal of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, last month. Barr said in a public statement at the time that Berman was “stepping down,” but Berman quickly issued a statement saying he had not relinquished his post and would ensure the cases he oversaw were continuing. Berman later resigned after an assurance that his trusted deputy, Audrey Strauss, would succeed him.
Asked about Barr’s initial false statement about Berman and whether he still stood by it, Barr said, “He may not have known it, but he was stepping down.”
At another point, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), noting that Barr had praised recently deceased civil rights icon John Lewis in his opening statement, accused Barr of himself encouraging systemic racism by surrounding himself with a nearly all-white leadership.
"That, sir, is systematic racism," he said. "I would just suggest that actions speak louder than words and you really should keep the name of the honorable John Lewis out of the Department of Justice’s mouth."
Barr was often at the mercy of GOP lawmakers to grant him time to respond to the criticisms, and when they did, he accused the Democratic Party of ignoring the violent elements that have accompanied peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.
"I hope the Democratic Party takes a stand against the violence," he said.
Early in the hearing, Barr acknowledged discussing Trump’s reelection during Cabinet meetings and other high-level meetings with senior administration officials.
“I’m a member of the Cabinet and there’s an election going on, so obviously the topic comes up,” Barr told the House Judiciary Committee after questioning from Chairman Jerry Nadler, who accused Barr of using the Justice Department to prop up Trump’s reelection chances.
Barr insisted that those internal discussions were unsurprising in the heat of the election and that the decisions to deploy federal security forces to cities such as Portland, Ore., were free of those considerations.
Nadler (D-N.Y.) pressed Barr on whether those deployments were ever raised in the context of Trump’s reelection. “You’re projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives,” Nadler said.
“I wasn’t going to advocate that. That is not the rule of law,” Barr said.
That exchange kicked off Barr’s long awaited — and repeatedly delayed — testimony to the panel, which arrived at the nadir of trust between Capitol Hill Democrats and the Justice Department. Committee Democrats said in advance of the hearing that they intended to distill their lengthy list of urgent issues down to one theme: that Barr has reoriented DOJ to serve Trump, rather than the nation.
“Bill Barr has been elevating Donald Trump’s personal interest above that of America,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “We want to shed light on those actions and find the basis for those actions if there are any.”
It’s a hearing whose importance has been magnified not least because it’s taken more than a year to arrange. Democrats first sought Barr’s testimony in May 2019, on the heels of the release of Mueller’s report on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.
But Barr called it off after Nadler unveiled plans to allow staff counsel to question him. A subsequent effort for his testimony fell apart in March, after the Covid-19 pandemic overtook the agenda. Finally, Nadler threatened to subpoena Barr last month before the two sides at last agreed to the Tuesday hearing.
For Barr, the hearing largely consisted of parrying the torrent of attacks from Democrats who have been eager to upbraid him on national TV — and catching his breath during what is likelier to be friendlier questions from the committee’s Republicans. After Nadler’s extended criticism of Barr, the first Republican to question him simply offered Barr the floor to respond.
In his prepared opening statement released by the Justice Department, Barr also waded into the national reckoning on race and police, saying that "every instance of excessive force is unacceptable and must be addressed, as is happening now in Minneapolis."
But Barr's testimony also appeared to blame nationwide protests against police brutality on rising crime rates in some cities.
"When a community turns on and pillories its own police, officers naturally become more risk averse and crime rates soar," he said.
"Unfortunately, we are seeing that now in many of our major cities."
Democrats practiced for the hearing on Sunday, paring down a list of concerns they acknowledged was too unwieldy to cover completely.
Barr signaled he was ready for a clash with Democrats by slamming "the grave abuses involved in the bogus 'Russiagate' scandal" in his written opening remarks — a phrase he didn’t repeat in his abridged oral statement to the panel. His written statement also accused committee Democrats of trying to "discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions."
Under questioning, Barr emphasized that he does assume Russia is attempting to interfere in the 2020 election and that it would be improper for any candidate to accept foreign help in the election.
Though the confrontation was sure to be fierce, committee aides said before the hearing it was unlikely to escalate to the rarely used step of on-the-spot subpoenas if Barr declined to answer questions, even if he suggested some answers might be subject to executive privilege.
“At the end of the day, a subpoena on the spot, although a dramatic tool, is not likely to resolve that situation,” said a Democratic committee counsel.
During their own questions, committee Republicans repeatedly pressed for details on U.S. Attorney John Durham's investigation of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe that Mueller later took over. Trump and his allies have repeatedly predicted Durham would issue damning findings about political motivations behind the Russia probe, though lately those hopes have grown muted as hints have emerged that the investigation could linger past the election.
Republicans also largely focused on defending the presence of federal law enforcement officers in Portland and DOJ's broader response to protests, describing "violent mobs" parading in the streets of major American cities and displaying a lengthy video of violence and looting that they say characterize the unrest — which Democrats say is a distortion that minimizes the broadly peaceful protests.
Barr had multiple meetings with staff to prepare for the hearing, DOJ officials told POLITICO. He prepared for questions on national policing controversies, violent crime, and the controversial government surveillance authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Three DOJ officials accompanied him to the hearing: top spokesperson Kerri Kupec, legislative affairs chief Stephen Boyd, and Barr’s chief of staff, Will Levi.
Barr repeatedly declined to discuss his conversations with the president but emphasized, “I’ve made it clear that I would like to pick the cities based on law enforcement need or based on neutral criteria.”
Barr also rejected suggestions that he’s intervened in the prosecutions of two close Trump allies — Flynn and Stone — at Trump’s behest.
Barr repeated his assertion that Stone’s prosecution was “righteous” and that despite Trump’s decision to commute his sentence, “I thought he should go to jail.” But he said he disagreed with career prosecutors’ initial recommendation of a seven to nine year sentence after Stone was found guilty on seven felony counts, including obstructing a congressional investigation.