Politics & Policy

In Congressional Testimony, Barr Calls for Unified Response to Violent Assault on U.S. Government

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2019. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning, the attorney general offers a vigorous defense of his tenure.

Attorney General Bill Barr is slated to testify before the House Judiciary Committee this morning. Setting the stage for what promises to be a contentious hearing, he has submitted written testimony that is at once combative and a summons to unity.

Barr takes head-on the politicized attempt by committee Democrats “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.” This tactic has been chosen, he deduces, because “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.” Clearly, late in an investigation in which major charging decisions are likely imminent, the attorney general is convinced that the Obama-era FBI surveillance of the opposition party’s presidential campaign and administration is a “scandal” driven by “grave abuses” of power.

At least for political purposes, Democrats do not accept that narrative. They will surely challenge it at the hearing, but at their peril: Barr has superior knowledge of the evidence uncovered, has monitored the investigation, and has on several occasions demonstrated his mastery of such publicly available details as the exhaustive DOJ inspector-general reports on FBI misconduct and the scathing directives from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court regarding the government’s “institutional lack of candor.”

Barr maintains that he took the job because he was confident that, although there would inevitably be political pressures from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, he would be free to exercise his independent judgment to make calls based on the law and the facts of each case. He asserts that he has been able to do just that. Democrats intend to challenge his claim aggressively, homing in particularly on his handling of the Michael Flynn and Roger Stone prosecutions — his move to dismiss the former case and his decision to overrule the trial prosecutors advocating for a very severe sentence in the latter case.

I’d expect Barr to counter with the revelations of investigative misconduct uncovered in the Flynn matter by an independent career prosecutor he assigned to review it, and with the facts that the judge in the Stone case — no fan of the Trump administration — imposed a sentence in the 40-month range that Barr judged was warranted, and that Barr opposed the president’s commutation of Stone’s sentence. I would further expect that the AG will cite his decisions not to prosecute Trump tormentors Andrew McCabe and James Comey — the former on what appeared to be a very strong false-statements case, the latter on a very thin allegation of mishandling classified information. These decisions incensed the president, but Barr was not prevented from making them as he saw fit, which is his point.

The AG also spends a significant portion of his written statement addressing two current crises: violent street crime in our cities and rioting at the federal courthouse in Portland, among other places.

As the backdrop for his comments on violent crime, Barr recounts the shameful history of “explicit discrimination” in American law. Although that has been overcome in the last half century due to the success of the Civil Rights movement, he observed that it is only natural for black Americans to have “the deeper, lingering concern that, in encounters with police . . . they will be treated with greater suspicion than a white person would be in the same circumstances.” The AG contends that this is the result of “a complex mix of factors” that can only be addressed attentively over time. It would be an “oversimplification,” he cautions, “to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism generally infecting our police departments.” This is particularly so, he adds, because those departments, at every level, feature more black officers than ever and are reflections of the communities they protect and serve.

Barr comes, then, to some uncomfortable truths that get little airing on Capitol Hill:

The threat to black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct. 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 percent –– are killed by other blacks, mainly by gunfire. Each of those lives matter.

Barr said that this was why federal law-enforcement agents are being deployed to cities experiencing spikes of violent crime. These are not federal troops, as some have irresponsibly claimed in a political attack on the president. They are “experienced investigators, firearms and ballistics analysts, and experts at apprehending violent fugitives,” who are being sent to “bolster the activities of our joint anti-crime task forces” — i.e., existing federal–state cooperative efforts to combat gang crime, drug crime, gun crime, and so on.

The AG concludes by addressing mob rioting. There is symmetry to this, in that his testimony opens by paying respects to the recently deceased Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.), remembered in a stirring rotunda memorial on Monday, describing Lewis as “an indomitable champion of civil rights and the rule of law” and stressing that the congressman “pursued his cause passionately and successfully with an unwavering commitment to nonviolence.”

That, unfortunately, is worlds away from what has been happening over the past two months. “In the wake of George Floyd’s death,” Barr notes, “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims.” In stark contrast to the media narrative of “peaceful protest” — and, though he does not expressly say so, to Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler’s astonishing statement that Antifa rioting in Portland is “a myth” — the AG describes the situation:

[A] mob of hundreds of rioters has laid siege to the federal courthouse and other nearby federal property. The rioters arrive equipped for a fight, armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles, and explosive devices. Inside the courthouse are a relatively small number of federal law enforcement personnel charged with a defensive mission: to protect the courthouse, home to Article III federal judges, from being overrun and destroyed.

What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States. In recent nights, rioters have barricaded the front door of the courthouse, pried plywood off the windows with crowbars, and thrown commercial-grade fireworks into the building in an apparent attempt to burn it down with federal personnel inside. The rioters have started fires outside the building, and then systematically attacked federal law enforcement officers who attempt to put them out —  for example, by pelting the officers with rocks, frozen water bottles, cans of food, and balloons filled with fecal matter. A recent video showed a mob enthusiastically beating a Deputy U.S. Marshal who was trying to protect the courthouse –– a property of the United States government funded by this Congress – from further destruction. A number of federal officers have been injured, including one severely burned by a mortar-style firework and three who have suffered serious eye injuries and may be permanently blind . . .

Remarkably, the response from many in the media and local elected offices to this organized assault has been to blame the federal government. To state what should be obvious, peaceful protesters do not throw explosives into federal courthouses, tear down plywood with crowbars, or launch fecal matter at federal officers. Such acts are in fact federal crimes under statutes enacted by this Congress.

Barr’s statement ends with a plea for a unified response to this rioting, regardless of party, of political views, or of “feelings about the Trump administration.” There should, he says, be universal condemnation of violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property, because “to tacitly condone destruction and anarchy is to abandon the basic rule-of-law principles that should unite us even in a politically divisive time.”

Alas, the hearing, beginning at 10 a.m., will surely reflect our political divisions instead.

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