Attorney General William Barr finally appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in a long-awaited and oft-delayed hearing on Tuesday. It lasted five hours, which afforded Democrats and Republicans on the committee numerous opportunities to grandstand for or against Barr and the Trump administration on numerous issues. Democrats, aiming to portray Barr as a willing accomplice of the president and his political agenda, made some attempts to probe Barr for new information, but mostly resorted to criticizing him and the president — often talking over or chiding Barr as he attempted to speak. As the New York Times noted afterward, the contentious exchanges, while sometimes dramatic, yielded little substance:
The five-hour hearing, Mr. Barr’s first on Capitol Hill in more than a year, grew increasingly heated as Democrats spoke over his attempts to respond to their accusations. At one point, the attorney general exclaimed, “I’m going to answer the damn question.”
Democrats were clearly angered as Mr. Barr quibbled over small details or ignored questions about his rationale or actions. But amid frequent sniping, lawmakers came away with few, if any, new facts or admissions.
Or as another observer put it:
In his opening statement, Barr attacked Democrats for trying to “discredit” him “by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions.” He insisted that, “my decisions on criminal matters have been left to my independent judgment, based on the law and fact, without any direction or interference from the White House or anyone outside the Department.”
Barr maintained his “nothing to see here” stance throughout the hearing, and he continually conjured an image of Trump that does not map onto objective reality, as the Washington Post later highlighted:
[Barr] did little to refute the criticism that Trump’s personal desires influence him. In his efforts to defend himself, Barr painted Trump as the consummate professional president, giving Barr “complete freedom” to do what he needs. “From my experience, the president has played a role properly and traditionally played by presidents,” Barr testified.
Republicans on the committee also offered up their own performances, compassionately leading Barr to affirm his and the administration’s talking points, and often ceding Barr more time to respond to Democrats’ accusations. At the beginning of the hearing, ranking Republican Jim Jordan, a staunch ally of the president, played a long unrest sizzle-reel which contained deceptively edited media coverage meant to imply reporters had called acts of violence peaceful protests when they didn’t.
Below are the most significant moments and takeaways from the hearing, focusing primarily on Barr’s exchanges with Democrats.
As expected, Barr defended his deployment of federal agents to suppress unrest
Barr claimed that the nightly demonstrations outside the a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon “cannot reasonably be called a protest,” claiming that the demonstrations were “by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.” Echoing the president and Trump’s other allies, Barr called those demonstrators “violent rioters and anarchists” who “wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims.” He insisted that the DOJ was doing its duty to defend the courthouse, “not out looking for trouble.” He did not acknowledge that the vast majority of protesters in Portland and around the country have been demonstrating peacefully.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler accused Barr of “projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives” — like aiding in the president’s reelection. Barr claimed that while he had discussed, as a member of Trump’s cabinet, the president’s reelection, he denied that the decision to send federal agents to Portland or other cities was a campaign tactic. Pressed by Nadler on whether or not he had discussed “current or future deployment of federal law enforcement” in regards to Trump’s reelection efforts, Barr said that, “I’m not going to get into my discussions with the president, but I’ve made it clear that I would like to pick the cities based on law enforcement and based on neutral criteria.”
His comments on the election weren’t very reassuring
Barr, who claimed not to be familiar with President Trump’s repeated attempts to pre-delegitimize the integrity of the election, repeated Trump’s baseless claim that there was a “high risk” that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud, but acknowledged that he knew of no evidence to back up that claim. (There isn’t any.) The attorney general also seemed to leave the door open for whether or not he would willingly leave office in the event of a contested election. Democratic representative Hakeem Jeffries asked Barr what he would do if Trump lost the election but refused to surrender the presidency, and in response, Barr responded that, “If the results are clear, I will leave office.” (As Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore has pointed out, the results are unlikely to be clear until sometime after Election Day.)
Barr also said that he had “no reason to think” the election would be rigged, which the president has been repeatedly suggesting, and that he thinks “we have to assume” that Russia is once again attempting to interfere. He also dodged a question, from Democratic representative Cedric Richmond, on whether or not he believed that Trump has the authority to move Election Day — responding that he had “never been asked the question before” and had “never looked into it as attorney general.”
Barr wouldn’t commit to withholding the results of a controversial probe into the Russia investigation, targeting the Obama administration, until after the election
A highly anticipated forthcoming report from U.S. Attorney John Durham on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation won’t trigger a Justice Department policy against interference in the 2020 presidential race, so the review could be released in the weeks leading up to the November election, Attorney General William Barr indicated to Congress Tuesday.
“I will be very careful. I know what Justice Department policy is,” Barr said[.] “Any report will be, in my judgment, not one that is covered by the policy and would disrupt the election.”
When Democratic representative Debbie Murcasel-Powell asked Barr if he would commit to withholding the report until after the election, he replied, “No.” He also reiterated, as he had said earlier this year, that he did not expect the investigation to lead to criminal indictments of either Obama or Biden. Notes Politico:
Some Trump backers have predicted the Durham probe will deliver a thunderclap that could upend the presidential race, but Barr has seemed at times to downplay those predictions. The lack of news in recent months about Durham’s progress has led Republicans to express frustration, even at the House hearing Tuesday.
Barr denied intervening at Trump’s behest in the cases of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn
Barr claimed that he intervened in both cases because he “determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law, to make sure people are treated the same.” Barr said he believed that the prosecution of Stone — a friend and longtime advisor of the president who openly championed his loyalty to Trump during and after his prosecution — was “righteous” and that, “I thought he should go to jail,” but that the punishment was too harsh. Barr claimed that “the line prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice anyone else in a similar position had ever served.”
During a heated exchange with Democratic representative Hank Johnson, Barr claimed that he did not discuss his more lenient sentencing recommendation “with anyone at the White House.”
“I agree the President’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, 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,” he also said at one point.
Asked by Democratic representative Eric Swalwell why he was not conducting a probe into President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence, Barr responded, “Why should I?”
He denied having a role in Michael Cohen’s re-imprisonment
Barr claimed he had no involvement in the decision to send former Trump fixer Michael Cohen back to prison for working on an anti-Trump book while he was released under house-arrest.
Barr said he did not believe there was systemic racism in American policing
The nation’s top law enforcement official dismissed the idea of systemic racism in U.S. police departments. Barr also tried to suggest that Black people are no more likely to be shot by police than white people in the country, noting that more white people have been shot and killed by police this year than Black people — without acknowledging the fact that Black people also make a far smaller percentage of the population.