Lawmakers focused on protests — to different ends.
Today’s testimony by Attorney General William P. Barr in front of the House Judiciary Committee got off to a tense start. Democrats immediately accused Mr. Barr of making overtly political decisions to help Mr. Trump. “You have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president,” Representative Jerrold R. Nadler of New York, the committee chairman, said to Mr. Barr, who sat impassively.
Mr. Nadler added, “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 to liberty, no matter the cost to justice.” He said that Mr. Barr’s actions eroded the separation of powers and damaged norms and the public’s faith in the administration of justice.
Mr. Barr came out swinging. In a prepared opening statement released Monday night, he accused Democrats of demonizing him because he believed the Trump-Russia investigation was misguided and aggressively defended the federal response to the nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd in May while he was in police custody in Minneapolis.
The attorney general appears to have played a primary role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for Mr. Trump in front of a church. Though the White House initially said Mr. Barr had ordered the clearance, he later said he had not given a “tactical” order. Either way, Democrats were livid over his presence and have come to see Mr. Barr as a key impediment to overhauls of policing that enjoy broad public support.
More recently, he has become a face of the Trump administration’s pledge to surge federal agents into Democratic-led cities like Portland, Ore.; Chicago; and Kansas City, Mo. where, the White House says, violence has increased, both during protests and elsewhere. The federal intervention — the details of which remain hazy — is quickly becoming another flash point in the monthslong cultural reckoning over systemic racism, and it appears to be a key campaign strategy by Mr. Trump who is trying to stoke a sense that Democrats are leading the country into chaos.
Republicans played a video highlighting violence against police.
Republicans had counterpunches of their own. Their most visceral case came in the form of a five-minute video montage that appeared to show protesters or people infiltrating their ranks across the country turning to violence.
“I want to thank you for defending law enforcement, for pointing out what a crazy idea the defund the police policy, whatever you want to call it, is, and standing up for the rule of law,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the panel’s top Republican, told Mr. Barr before playing the video. It began with footage of cable news anchors describing the protests as “peaceful” before streaming through scenes like a police precinct being set ablaze in Minneapolis, American flags burning, cans being hurled at police and stores looted.
The attorney general needed little help defending himself, though. In his prepared remarks, he warned that “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction” in places like Portland, Ore.
In his prepared statement submitted to the committee, which he did not fully read aloud, Mr. Barr also said: “We should all be able to agree that there is no place in this country for armed mobs that seek to establish autonomous zones beyond government control, or tear down statues and monuments that law-abiding communities chose to erect, or to destroy the property and livelihoods of innocent business owners.”
His comments were the latest attempt by federal officials to draw more attention to vandals’ nightly bids to damage federal buildings in Portland, accusing local police of doing little to stop them. City officials have accused federal agents of being heavy-handed and said their presence reinvigorated tensions that had been subsiding.
While some protesters have been violent, many others have been peaceful and have included high school students, military veterans, off-duty lawyers and lines of mothers who call themselves the “Wall of Moms.”
The video that Mr. Jordan played omitted instances where federal agents, who arrived in the city on July 4, had responded aggressively and sometimes with disproportionate force through the use of tear gas, and flash bangs and pepper balls.
Democrats criticized Mr. Barr’s intervention in the Roger Stone case.
Mr. Barr defended his extraordinary decision to overrule career prosecutors, saying that they were trying to treat Mr. Stone more harshly than other defendants. The Judiciary Committee heard testimony from a prosecutor on the case last month accusing department leaders of changing the sentencing recommendation for “political reasons.”
“The prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice what anyone else in a similar position had ever served,” Mr. Barr said. “This is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence, they were trying to put them in jail for seven to nine years. I was not going to advocate that. That is not the rule of law.”
But the prosecutors said in court that they arrived at the seven- to nine-year recommendation by following the department’s own sentencing guidelines, as is customary in any federal criminal case. Questioned by the federal judge who oversaw the Stone case, department officials acknowledged that it was the policy of the United States attorney’s office to seek the harshest possible sentence under the sentencing guidelines and to let the judge decide whether it was warranted. She questioned why the Justice Department treated Mr. Stone more leniently than other defendants.
Under questioning by Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, Mr. Barr agreed that the prosecutors’ recommendation was within sentencing guidelines. “But it was not within Justice Department policy in my view,” he said.
In an especially heated exchange, Mr. Johnson retorted: “You are expecting the American people to believe that you did not do what Trump wanted you to do? You think the American people don’t understand that you were carrying out Trump’s” wishes?
“Let me ask you,” Mr. Barr replied. “Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?” He insisted that he never discussed his decision to overrule Mr. Stone’s prosecutors with anyone at the White House.
Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, later asked Mr. Barr repeatedly if he would point to any other case where the department had recommended a more lenient punishment than the guidelines set out for a defendant like Mr. Stone, who had threatened a judge and a witness.
Mr. Barr did not answer directly, insisting that “the judge agreed with me” and gave Mr. Stone a lighter sentence.
Mr. Deutch was displeased. “The essence of the rule of law is that we have one rule for everybody and we don’t in this case because he is a friend of the president,” he said.
Democrats want answers on Barr’s approach to the Mueller investigation.
House Democrats have sought to press Mr. Barr on his handling of the Russia report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for more than a year. They finally have their chance.
A federal judge has said that in summarizing the report himself weeks before releasing it, Mr. Barr put forward a “distorted” and “misleading” account that torqued public understanding of it in a way that favored Mr. Trump. Democrats felt at the time that those distortions brazenly helped protect Mr. Trump politically from possible impeachment — an accusation Mr. Barr denies.
But his written opening statement suggested that Democrats’ hatred of Mr. Trump has blinded them to abuses by law enforcement and intelligence officials. He said: “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 has long been a critic of law enforcement and intelligence officials’ attempts to understand Russia’s efforts to tilt the 2016 election in Mr. Trump’s favor and whether any Trump associates conspired. Mr. Barr has directed a criminal prosecutor to scrutinize the F.B.I. inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and stepped in to reverse key prosecutorial decisions stemming from the investigation.
Mr. Mueller’s report said that Russia favored Mr. Trump and that his campaign welcomed the interference and expected to benefit from it, but that investigators found insufficient evidence to bring criminal conspiracy charges.
Mr. Barr also said that Mr. Trump has never tried to “interfere” in his decisions, and that he feels that he has “complete freedom” to do what he thinks is right.
But Mr. Trump has repeatedly attacked the Justice Department’s investigations and employees. Mr. Barr himself expressed frustration with Mr. Trump’s attacks, saying in February that his public statements and tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
Republicans want details on the Justice Dept.’s scrutiny of the Russia inquiry.
Republicans have cheered on Mr. Barr as he took steps to discredit the Russia investigation, and on Tuesday, they accused Democrats of trying to smear him because he called out members of their party when he said last year that he was scrutinizing the inquiry.
“They have been attacking you ever since for simply stating the truth that the Obama-Biden administration spied on the Trump campaign,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the panel.
They will be fishing for more clues about where he is going.
Mr. Barr appointed a criminal prosecutor, John H. Durham, to lead the scrutiny and has repeatedly hinted at possible indictments and could provide new details. He has suggested that he does not believe longstanding department policy against taking actions that could affect elections should apply to Mr. Durham’s work this fall and that he worries federal agents unfairly and dangerously targeted Mr. Trump and his campaign.
In the meantime, Republican lawmakers are likely to ask for Mr. Barr’s thoughts on a raft of recently declassified case files that they argue show F.B.I. agents were relying on shoddy foreign information to undertake key investigative actions into Mr. Trump’s associates.
Mr. Mueller’s investigators determined that Mr. Trump’s campaign welcomed Moscow’s help in 2016 but found insufficient evidence to charge any campaign officials or Trump associates with conspiring with the interference by a hostile foreign power.
Mr. Barr was questioned about his warning of widespread voter fraud.
As states prepare for record numbers of voters to cast ballots this fall by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Barr has provided key backup to Mr. Trump’s claims of rampant fraud. Democrats fear their comments are intended to or will at least have the effect of suppressing voter turnout or limiting access to the ballot box.
After Mr. Trump attacked efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic and claimed it would be used to rig the election against him — even though the president has voted by mail himself — Mr. Barr has repeatedly raised without evidence, including in interviews with The New York Times and Fox News, the suggestion that a foreign country could engage in fraud by counterfeiting numerous ballots.
Experts say that a foreign-sponsored plot to systematically tamper with ballots is nearly impossible because of how they are printed and tracked. Many states have been conducting elections by mail for years without any major security problems or widespread fraud.
At the hearing, Representative Cedric Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana, asked Mr. Barr whether he believed the 2020 election would be rigged. The attorney general said he had no reason to think it would be. Mr. Richmond then followed up by asking whether he believed that mail-in voting would lead to massive voter fraud.
“I think there is a high risk that it will,” Mr. Barr replied, adding: “If you have wholesale mail-in voting, it increases the risk of fraud.”
Mr. Barr did not explain further, and Mr. Richmond did not ask him whether any evidence existed supporting his earlier claims that foreign governments could counterfeit and mail in tens of thousands of ballots. But the lawmakers did get Mr. Barr to acknowledge that he had once cast a ballot by mail himself.