'I'm losing my patience': Jayapal, Nadler spar with Barr over Portland, politicization
WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr called riots in Portland, Oregon, "an assault on the government of the United States," countering Democratic lawmakers who characterized federal officers' actions against protesters as unconstitutional, politically charged fearmongering.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Barr offered an unmitigated defense of the deployment of federal officers to Portland, where he said "a mob" hijacked legitimate demonstrations against police brutality.
"Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform," the attorney general said in a prepared statement. "Nor could such brazen acts of lawlessness plausibly be justified by a concern that police officers in Minnesota or elsewhere defied the law.
"It is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., also suggested people have been distracted from the original cause of the protests, but any similarities with Barr ended there.
"Let us not be distracted by you or my GOP colleagues as to what these powerful and massive protests were actually about, they were about the persistent killing of black bodies by law enforcement and finally, finally an awakening in America of the conscience of our country, and yet your response, Mr. Barr, was to direct federal officers to ... clear the area just so the president could get a photo op" she said, referring to use of force against protesters in Lafayette Square.
As Barr debated the use of the term tear gas rather than chemical irritant, she said, "I'm losing my patience." Jayapal also said that Barr uses his power unevenly, noting that federal officers were not sent to Michigan when people with guns and Confederate flags threatened Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the state's COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
"You take an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests but not right-wing extremists threatening to lynch a governor, if it is for the president's benefit," Jayapal said.
Barr's long-sought testimony comes as House Democrats investigate alleged political interference at the Justice Department, claiming that the attorney general has turned it into a political annex of the Trump White House. The hearing touched on a year's worth of grievances, from the widely criticized rollout of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report in 2019, to interference in criminal investigations involving Trump's allies, to the controversial ouster of Manhattan's chief federal prosecutor, to the use of force against protesters in Portland and at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
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During a chaotic five hours filled with partisan hostility, the attorney general repeatedly clashed with committee Democrats, at times growing frustrated and raising his voice to answer questions as they interrupted him.
"I'm going to answer the damn question," Barr said during a heated exchange with Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., about the recent firing of Geoffrey Berman as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. Berman had testified that Barr repeatedly pressed him to resign to make way for Trump's desired nominee and called Barr's decision to appoint an outsider as a temporary replacement "unprecedented, unnecessary and unexplained."
Republicans defended Barr, accusing Democrats of misrepresenting the unrest in Portland and other cities and echoing Barr’s comments that protests have been taken over by violent instigators.
"Americans are scared," said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.
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Asked whether Barr had discussed the deployment of at least 114 federal officers to Portland with President Donald Trump as part of a reelection campaign strategy, the attorney general said he would not discuss conversations he has with the president.
"Shame on you, Mr. Barr," said Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. "Shame on you."
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Democrats also criticized the expansion of Operation Legend, a federal crime initiative that was launched in Kansas City, Missouri, in which more than 200 agents were dispatched. Since then, Trump and Barr announced the deployment of 50 agents to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and more than 200 officers to Chicago. Democrats questioned whether it was a legitimate deployment of law enforcement resources – against the wishes of local and state officials – or a stunt to help Trump’s reelection.
Barr pushed back against such characterizations, saying Democrats are conflating federal deployment to Portland, where federal agents have been the target of violent attacks, and the use of federal resources in cities where he says violent crime has risen.
"We are on the defense. We're not out looking for trouble," Barr said, adding that he supports peaceful protests but condemns those who commit crime.
Addressing outrage over police abuses that have sparked protests nationwide, Barr said brutality involving police remains rare. He said Floyd's death and others like it "strike a deep chord in the black community because they are perceived as manifestation of the deeper, lingering concern that, in encounters with police, Blacks will not be treated even-handedly; they will not be given the benefit of the doubt; they will be treated with greater suspicion than a white person would be in the same circumstances.
"I think these concerns are legitimate," Barr said in the statement, though he suggested police shouldn't bear all of the blame.
"I think it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism generally infecting our police departments," Barr said. "It seems far more likely that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors, which can be addressed with focused attention over time."
Barr also cited so-called Black-on-Black crimes.
"The threat to Black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct," Barr said. "The leading cause of death for young Black males is homicide. Every year approximately 7,500 Black Americans are victims of homicide, and the vast majority of them – around 90% – are killed by other Blacks, mainly by gunfire. Each of those lives matter."
Barr also disagreed that there's systemic racism in police departments, called it "irresponsible" to call federal officers "storm troopers" and said it's "extremely dangerous" to defund the police.
Roger Stone and debate on 'special breaks'
Barr defended his decision to intervene in the case of Roger Stone, Trump's longtime ally, saying he believes the prosecution of Stone was "righteous" but the prosecutors' sentence recommendation of seven to nine years was too harsh.
"I agree the president's friends don't deserve special breaks, but they also don't deserve to be treated more harshly," Barr said, adding that a federal judge ultimately did not agree with the prosecutors' initial recommendation.
Last month, a Justice Department prosecutor said the department's leadership gave "unprecedentedly favorable treatment" by pushing for a more lenient prison sentence against the recommendation of career prosecutors. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress to protect Trump and his campaign. The president has since commuted Stone's sentence.
Aaron Zelinsky, one of the attorneys who prosecuted Stone, told lawmakers he and the other attorneys who prosecuted the GOP operative were pressured to "cut Stone a break" or they could be fired.
Democrats accused Barr of punishing Trump's enemies while protecting his friends. Barr pushed back, saying, "What enemies have I indicted?"
Of mounting questions about favorable decisions rendered in a series of cases involving Trump and his allies, Barr said his actions "have been my own."
"And they have been made because I believed they were right under the law and principles of justice," according to Barr's statement.
"Ever since I made it clear that I was going to do everything I could to get to the bottom of the grave abuses involved in the bogus 'Russiagate' scandal, many of the Democrats on this committee have attempted 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," he said. "Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today."
Barr cited the Justice Department's prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements during an interview with the FBI.
The Justice Department has since moved to dismiss the case, and Barr, who has appointed an outside prosecutor to review the case, said recently uncovered documents show that the FBI interview "was untethered to any legitimate investigation."