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On Tuesday, United States Attorney General William Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Justice Department’s deployment of federal officers to cities to contain protests, its alleged interference in the criminal case of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, and over the issue of voting by mail in the November 2020 presidential election.
The five-hour hearing was fraught with tension as Democrats pressed Barr to respond to their allegations, with both parties bickering, interrupting and speaking over each other.
At one point, Barr responded in exasperation, “This is a hearing; I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard.”
Policing and federal response to Black Lives Matter protests
Some of the most heated exchanges took place over police brutality against protesters and the Justice Department’s deployment of federal officers to quell protests in Portland and other cities.
Democratic representative from Washington Pramila Jayapal asked Barr why the federal troops were not activated when white people in Michigan marched to the state Capitol to protest the COVID-19 lockdown.
Protesters brought guns and a doll with a noose around its neck, calling for Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer to be “lynched, shot and beheaded.”
“There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the Attorney General, the top cop in this country, when white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the President to ‘activate’ you, because they’re getting the President’s personal agenda done," said Jayapal.
“But when Black people, and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism and the President’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the President."
Jerry Nadler, Democratic representative for New York, argued that the Justice Department had deployed federal officers to incite more clashes with the protesters with the motive of scaring people into voting for President Donald Trump in the November 2020 presidential election.
“You are projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives. Shame on you, Mr. Barr,” Nadler stated.
Nightly protests have been occurring in Portland outside the city’s federal courthouse where federal troops are stationed. Often these protests have escalated into violent confrontations with federal troops and law enforcement officers.
Barr denied Nadler’s allegations, stating that federal troops have a duty to protect federal property, including the courthouse, from fireworks and vandalism.
“We are on the defense, we are not looking for trouble, and if the state and the city would provide the law enforcement services that other jurisdictions do, we would have no need to have additional marshals in the courthouse.”
Barr added that a few officers had suffered injuries during the clashes.
Protesters have also been seriously injured. Weeks ago, a federal officer shot a Portland protester with less-than-lethal munition, fracturing his skull.
Oregon and Portland local officials have asked for federal troops to leave the city, arguing that their presence is escalating the protests. However, the Justice Department has rejected this demand.
Both Republicans and Democrats showed competing videos to make their arguments. Republicans presented videos of protesters using violent tactics against law enforcement, while Democrats showed videos of peaceful protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter.”
At one point in the hearing, Barr stated, “I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in the police department generally in this country."
He added that he is not in support of ending qualified immunity, which critics have long argued protects officers from being held accountable for extreme use of force.
Democratic Representative from California Karen Bass argued that Barr was incorrect in his assertion that the justice system was equal.
To this, Barr responded, “I said the law, I said the laws were made equal."
“The laws were made equal; they are certainly not applied equally," Bass said to his response. “We do have systemic problems in our law enforcement system, our criminal justice system, on every level."
Roger Stone and Michael Flynn
Barr has been accused of interference in the criminal cases against Trump’s long-time friend Roger Stone and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
In 2019, Stone was convicted for lying to Congress during its investigation against Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The prosecutors in Stone’s case wanted him to be sentenced to prison for seven to nine years. Barr, however, pushed for the sentence to be reduced.
In the hearing, Barr said in his defense, “This is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence, and they were trying to put him in jail for seven to nine years. And I wasn’t going to advocate that, because that is not the rule of law.”
Barr added that the judge presiding over the case agreed with him too. The judge did reduce Barr’s sentence to 40 months, but she also labelled Barr’s interference “unprecedented.”
In 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. The Justice Department interfered under Barr’s direction to close the case against Flynn.
The decision is yet to be made by the full federal appeals court in Washington.
Nadler said of the Justice Department’s interference in these cases, “The message these actions send is clear: In this Justice Department, the President’s enemies will be punished and his friends will be protected, no matter the cost, no matter the cost to liberty, no matter the cost to justice.”
In his defense, Barr said he was not acting under Trump’s influence, adding “[Trump] told me from the start that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment to make whatever call I think is right. That is precisely what I have done.
“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," Barr went on to say.
Mail-in voting for the 2020 election
Democratic Representative for Louisiana Cedric Richmond asked Barr if he thought the November election would be “rigged” because of mail-in voting.
“I have no reason to think it will be,” Barr said.
Trump told Fox News in an interview this month that mail-in voting “is going to rig the election.” Barr too has suggested that mail-in voting could lead to fraud if the entire US population is allowed to mail-in vote.
However, his critics have questioned the lack of evidence to support this assertion. Barr testified in the hearing that he too has voted by mail at least once.
Democrat Representative Mary Gay Scanlon from Pennsylvania asked Barr if he had evidence to back up his claim that foreign countries could produce counterfeit ballots to influence the election outcome.
Barr stated that there was no evidence. However, he added that despite the lack of proof, Americans should still assume that Russia will interfere in the elections. Barr did not provide specifics regarding how such interference will be carried out.
Democratic Representative for Rhode Island David Cicilline then asked Barr if it was appropriate for Trump himself to “to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election.”
To this Barr first replied, “It depends what kind of assistance.”
Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton has accused Trump in his tell-all memoir of asking China’s president Xi Jinping for assistance in the 2020 election
In December 2019, Trump was impeached by the Democratic-majority House for soliciting Ukraine’s assistance in investigating Democrats, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, in exchange for providing Ukraine with military aid. Trump was later acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate.
In the hearing, Cicilline repeated his question, this time also asking if the assistance could be “of any kind.”
Barr then changed his answer to, “No, it’s not appropriate.”
When Barr was asked if he would leave office if Trump loses the November election, he responded, “If the results are clear, I will leave office.”
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