Attorney General William Barr and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday presented starkly different views of nightly protests in Portland, Oregon, with Barr insisting that federal agents were there to protect the federal courthouse from rioters, and Democrats countering that their deployment in the Democratic-run city was meant to escalate violence and help President Donald Trump’s re-election.
The divergent portrayals of Portland came as Barr made his first appearance before the committee and rejected allegations that he was politicizing the Department of Justice to aid the president — whether through the use of federal agents in Portland or by interfering in the prosecutions of Trump allies such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. Republicans came to the attorney general’s defense.
Here are some highlights from the often tense hearing.
Contentious opening statements
The chairman of the committee, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, accused Barr of endangering American citizens and suppressing dissent under his leadership of the Department of Justice.
Nadler said he believes Barr coordinated with the White House to spread disinformation about voter fraud in an apparent attempt to assist Trump’s re-election, blatantly misrepresented the report into Russian interference in the 2016 election from the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, and meddled with criminal investigations to help the president.
Nadler said Barr had "aided and abetted" the worst failings of the president.
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"In this Justice Department, the president’s enemies will be punished and his friends will be protected," Nadler said.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Jim Jordan of Ohio, opened with one word, "Spying." Jordan repeated a longstanding accusation that the Obama administration had spied on the Trump campaign -- though the Department of Justice’s inspector general found no evidence that the FBI placed any confidential sources or undercover agents in the Trump campaign or tasked any such sources "to report on the Trump campaign," according to FactCheck.org.
Jordan showed a nearly 8-minute long video of unrelenting violence after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota while he was in police custody. It featuring looters, burning U.S. flags, a statue being toppled and a press conference by the widow of David Dorn, a retired African-American police captain who was killed while helping to protect a friend’s pawn shop in St. Louis. The images were juxtaposed against the characterization of Black Lives Matter protests as peaceful, as most have been, including by former President Barack Obama.
Federal agents in Portland, other cities
Barr defended sending federal agents into Portland, Oregon, a controversial strategy that the administration insists is a legitimate defense of federal buildings but which Trump’s opponents say deliberately ratchets up violence to make cities under Democratic leadership appear out of control before the November election.
Barr said in his opening statement that the presence of federal agents in several cities where protests are occurring had "nothing to do with the problem of violent mob rioting" but was meant to help state and local law enforcement solve crimes and keep their communities safe. He said "violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests."
"Why can’t we just say violence against federal courts has to stop," Barr asked after criticizing Democratic leaders for not speaking out against violence.
Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California accused the federal agents in Portland of making unconstitutional arrests, citing as an example a protester who was seized by agents, taken to an unmarked van, searched and then ultimately released. The arrest was made with no probable cause, he said.
"We do not live in a police state," he told Barr. "We are better than that."
Barr said he did not know the particulars of every case, but defended the questioning of protestors. Federal agents who have tried to detain those who are engaged in violence have been swarmed by people dressed in black, he said.
Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, who ceded some of her time so Barr could answer Lieu's accusation, said her constituents had watched scenes of violence on television and were afraid.
"This has to stop," she said.
A double standard?
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents the Seattle area, set out what she called Barr’s double standard — in ordering federal agents to clear Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C., but not to respond in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when armed protesters swarmed the state Capitol in opposition to the governor’s stay-at-home orders to try to curb the coronavirus. The protesters there called for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to be lynched, shot and beheaded, Jayapal said.
Barr said he was unaware of threats against the governor.
At one point as he tried to talk over Jayapal, she cut him off: "This is my time and I control it."
Jayapal accused him of deploying federal agents against protesters who oppose Trump but holding back when they support him. Lafayette Park was cleared moments before Trump walked across to St. John’s Church for what Democrats have derided as a photo op.
"There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general," she told him.
Critics say the U.S. Park Police and National Guards troops used excessive force against the demonstrators in Lafayette Square. Barr said that the square was emptied to extend a security perimeter around the White House because of earlier violence, not for the president's photo op. He added that he did not consider the protesters in Lafayette Square that day to be entirely peaceful because police reported projectiles being thrown, and he continued to insist that "tear gas" was not used -- a distinction Democrats and others have denounced as semantic disagreement over which type of eye irritant was employed.
In a separate hearing on Tuesday, a major in the D.C. National Guard, Adam DeMarco, who was in the square, insisted that tear gas was used, while the acting chief of the U.S. Park Police rejected the accusation that the park was emptied for the president.
Addressing racism and police brutality
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California told Barr the Department of Justice needed to do more to confront racism and compared the treatment of a Black man who had done nothing wrong with two mass murderers who are white.
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died in 2019 after police officers in Aurora, Colorado, restrained him with a chokehold and paramedics injected him with a sedative, ketamine. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died a few days later. A massage therapist who liked to play the violin, he was walking home from a convenience store.
Contrast that, Bass said, with the treatment of James Holmes, who in 2012 killed 12 people in an Aurora movie theater and was arrested calmly, or Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Law enforcement bought Roof a meal from Burger King after his arrest, she said.
"The department is not doing enough to address issues of racism, bias and brutality in law enforcement, when someone who commits mass murder is calmly arrested and served Burger King while a young man walking down the street is placed in a chokehold, injected with ketamine then dies," she said.
Barr told the representatives that he did not believe there was systemic racism in American police departments.
Democrats criticized Barr for claiming that widespread mail-in voting would present a higher risk for fraud, pointing out that Barr himself has voted by mail.
In an interview to Fox News in July he said voting by mail "opens the floodgates to fraud."
He claimed that "a foreign country could print tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots."
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania challenged that assertion, accusing him of repeating Trump’s conspiracy theories and noting that five states vote entirely by mail and two thirds allow voting by mail for any reason.
Told that in fact he had no evidence that foreign countries could disrupt an election with counterfeit ballots, he snapped back that he had common sense. He defended voting by mail himself, saying he supported the practice when it was necessary.
Trump has railed against mail-in voting and has said that he fears it would hurt Republican chances.
Scanlon told Barr that more than 800 public health experts had written calling for voting by mail during the pandemic.
Angry exchanges but little new information
The hearing was marked by Democrats repeatedly saying, "I reclaim my time," as they refused to allow Barr to speak, only to have the Republicans who followed give Barr time to respond. Barr tried to talk over the Democrats when he wanted to answer but denied being familiar with other topics, such as the president's tweets, which he said he did not read.
The hearing provided little new information but plenty of sharp exchanges. At one point when Barr asked for a short break and Nadler refused, Barr responded that he had waited an hour for him to begin the hearing. Nadler was late because he was in a car accident on his way to Congress.
Republicans asked Democrats to allow Barr to talk but they too were cut off.
Barr defends handling of Stone, Flynn cases
Barr defended his intervention in the case of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime friend, who was found guilty of obstructing a congressional investigation. He repeated what he had said before, that Stone’s prosecution was righteous, but said he disagreed with the recommendation from prosecutors of a sentence of seven to nine years. Trump then commuted Stone’s sentence.
Barr also has tried to drop the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia’s then ambassador to the United States. The federal judge who was to sentence Flynn objected.
Democrats accuse Barr of protecting the president.