WASHINGTON – US Attorney-General William Barr on Tuesday (July 28) defended himself in front of a Democratic-led House of Representative committee, denying accusations that he abused his power to help President Donald Trump’s associates and boost Trump’s re-election hopes.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the hearing with scathing remarks, telling Barr: “Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the (Justice) Department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the president.”
Barr pushed back, saying, “I feel complete freedom to do what I feel is right.”
The hearing marks Barr’s first testimony before the House Judiciary Committee since he took office in February 2019, and comes as the Justice Department faces criticism for sending federal officers to forcibly disperse protesters in Portland and Washington DC.
Barr rejected a claim by Nadler that the deployment of federal agents to US cities was an effort to boost Trump’s re-election campaign.
Barr also denied taking actions to help Trump’s associates, saying they do not deserve special breaks but also should not be treated more harshly than other defendants.
The department’s internal watchdog launched probes last week into federal involvement in the Portland and Washington protests.
Widespread and mostly peaceful protests against racial bias and police brutality have occurred throughout the United States since George Floyd’s May 25 death in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Barr has highlighted the arson and violence that have broken out at some protests, blaming them primarily on far-left “antifa” elements and urging federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges whenever possible.
Barr defended the use of federal law enforcement to quell the protests in Portland, where some protesters have thrown objects at the federal courthouse.
“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,” Barr said.
Under questioning by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who is Black, Barr also downplayed accusations of widespread racial discrimination in policing across the country.
“You indicated that the killing of George Floyd was shocking. I disagree,” Jackson Lee said. “You seem to have a difficult time understanding systemic racism and institutional racism that has plagued so many.”
Barr replied: “I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments.”
The House Judiciary Committee launched a broad inquiry last month into whether the Justice Department had become overly politicised.
Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat, said at the hearing he had introduced a resolution to investigate Barr and to see if he should be impeached.
The inquiries came after Barr intervened in several high-profile criminal cases involving people close to Trump. In February, he moved to scale back the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, prompting four career prosecutors to withdraw.
In May, Barr sought to drop the criminal charge against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, setting the stage for an ongoing legal battle with the federal judge who was due to sentence Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Barr, in his testimony, insisted that Trump “has not attempted to interfere in these decisions.”
In June, Barr ousted the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, while that office was investigating Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Berman later told the committee: “I do not know what the attorney general’s motives were, but the irregular and unexplained actions by the attorney general raised serious concerns for me.”
In July, the Bureau of Prisons, which reports to Barr, ordered Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen out of home confinement and back to prison after he hesitated to sign a sweeping gag order that would have prevented him from releasing a book about the president.
A federal judge ordered Cohen released last week, saying there was evidence the Bureau of Prisons had retaliated against him.