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Attorney General William Barr argued Wednesday that coronavirus-related lockdown orders were surpassed only by slavery as the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in the nation’s history.
The remarks from the attorney general came during an event hosted by Hillsdale College, where Barr delivered a speech defending his intervention in Justice Department cases and comparing career prosecutors to preschoolers.
“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said during a question-and-answer session following his remarks.
At one point, Barr seemingly suggested that the federal response to the pandemic should be guided by politicians and elected officials rather than medical experts and the broader scientific community.
“The person in the white coat is not the ‘grand seer’ who can come up with a right decision for society. A free people makes its decision through its elected representative,” he said.
Barr also used the appearance to address the widespread criticism he has faced as the nation’s top law enforcement officer for allegedly interfering in criminal cases on behalf of President Donald Trump’s political interests.
“What do you mean by interfere? Under the law, all prosecutorial power is vested in the attorney general, and these people are agents of the attorney general,” Barr said. “And as I say, FBI agents, whose agent do you think you are?”
The attorney general specifically attacked Justice Department prosecutors who had made charging and sentencing decisions with which he disagreed.
“Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren’t any,” Barr said, according to a Justice Department copy of his remarks.
“Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency.”
Barr asserted that “individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” and that “smart, ambitious lawyers have sought to amass glory by prosecuting prominent public figures since the Roman Republic.”
Barr’s provocative comments come as he is taking an unusually high profile during the presidential campaign season and, on occasion, weighing in directly on what he views as the urgency of reelecting Trump.
In an interview last week during an official trip to Chicago to discuss an anti-crime initiative, Barr said he believes the November election is the most significant of his lifetime.
“As an attorney general, I’m not supposed to get into politics. … For example, attorneys general don’t go out and campaign and so forth,” Barr told WGN radio’s John Kass.
“I think we were getting into a position where we were going to find ourselves irrevocably committed to the socialist path,” he said. “And I think if Trump loses this election that that will be the case. … I think there’s now a clear fork in the road for our country.”
Barr added that, “increasingly, the message of the Democrats appears to be: Biden or no peace. … That is rule by the mob, and we’re approaching that.”
In the same interview, the attorney general also endorsed the president’s view that he is besieged by the federal bureaucracy, which Trump often derides as the “deep state.”
“There are undoubtedly many people in the government who surreptitiously work to thwart the administration,” Barr said.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows defended the attorney general Thursday morning amid fallout from Barr’s latest remarks, saying the Trump administration was working to “restore the integrity to the Department of Justice and the FBI.”
“When we talk about setting priorities, Bill Barr is exactly right. We need to make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law,” Meadows told Fox News.
“But, unfortunately, some in — some would say it’s the deep state. I would just say that it’s actually the swamp that continues to try to make sure a political agenda is driven instead of law and order and justice for all,” he said.
Barr’s remarks triggered a withering outpouring of criticism from former Justice Department officials, including both political appointees and career staffers, who accused the attorney general of denigrating the agency’s dedicated career employees.
“Though dangerous, Barr is becoming increasingly absurd,” former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted. “When I was at DOJ — regardless of my ultimate authority — I saw the career staff as trusted colleagues, not pre-schoolers. To my friends at DOJ, know that this nation values and supports you. I do.”
“This is the AG demeaning the career men and women of his own department, comparing them to preschoolers,” former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates tweeted. “These dedicated public servants are working hard every day to try to get it right. They deserve his respect, not disdain.”
Among those pushing back against Barr’s remarks was Jody Hunt, a veteran career lawyer at the department who served as a Trump administration political appointee and as chief of staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Hunt, who stepped down in July after about two decades at DOJ, fired off no fewer than three tweets rebutting Barr.
“Not accurate to suggest that career officials are less experienced than political appointees. Many supervisors are career officials, who often have more experience than politicals. And the career officials generally work hard to apply principled positions across administrations,” Hunt tweeted.
House Minority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) fiercely condemned Barr’s comment likening coronavirus restrictions to slavery, calling it one of the “most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I’ve ever heard.”
“It is incredible the chief law enforcement officer in this country would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives. Slavery was not about saving lives. It was about devaluing lives,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, told CNN.
Clyburn also noted that the Trump administration never announced a nationwide lockdown order, instead deferring to state and local governments to impose a patchwork of stay-at-home mandates and other measures limiting Americans’ movements.
“It would have been great if we had a national lockdown, so that people’s lives would be saved and our children would be going on with their lives today as they should be,” Clyburn said.
“But that is just what we’re up against here,” he continued. “Two people in charge of running the law enforcement of this country who are absolutely tone-deaf to what it takes to be great leaders. They are driving this country into a direction that no one ever thought they would see in our lifetime.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the fifth-highest ranking House Democrat, said Barr was wrong to describe slavery as a form of “restraint,” and that it actually represented “one of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed.”
“The casual way in which he referenced it pretty much tells you all you need to know about Bill Barr and his inability to process the dynamics, particularly as it relates to the systemic racism that has been in the soil of America for 401 years,” Jeffries told CNN.
Republican lawmakers offered a mixed reaction to Barr’s comments.
“That’s not the analogy I would use,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said about the attorney general’s comparison.
“I think what he’s trying to say is that the country has — you know, it’s been tough.” Graham said. “We’ve had to shelter in place, and our lifestyle has changed dramatically. But no, I would not compare it to slavery. Probably the only thing to compare it to would be 1918.”
“Any time you talk about slavery, it’s going to be inflammatory,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I think some of the lockdowns have been arbitrary and inconsistent, and I think there are civil liberties concerns. I share some of those concerns. But I probably would not use those words. I would not use those words.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was more supportive of Barr, arguing that “imprisoning 300 million people in their homes for nine months has no precedent in modern times.”
Cruz criticized the media for focusing on the remarks, but also said Barr may have overlooked another major abridgment of civil liberties: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Barr’s remarks about slavery were not the only controversial statements he made Wednesday regarding matters of race. He also took aim at the Black Lives Matter movement, while appearing to express agreement with its stated core belief.
“Who can quarrel with the proposition, ‘Black lives matter?’” Barr said. “But they’re not interested in Black lives. They’re interested in props — a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflict with police … who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”
The attorney general’s appearance at the Hillsdale College event came as The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday night that he had instructed federal prosecutors in a conference call last week to more aggressively charge violent demonstrators at anti-racism protests — including under a sedition law that would accuse them of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) showed support Thursday for Barr’s reported remarks on the call, saying federal law enforcement officials “have to draw the line.”
“My preference is always that law and order, for the most part — disrupting the public, people mobbing people, not letting them move — would be local crimes and should be adjudicated locally,” Paul told Fox Business.
“But there’s sort of an abdication going on on the left,” he said. “They’ve decided that, you know, it’s a summer of love, and everybody loves each other, and this is the First Amendment.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), whose state has seen more than 100 consecutive days of protest in Portland against racial injustice and police brutality, said he was “astounded” by reports of the attorney general’s call with prosecutors and that Barr was proposing “politicizing protest.”
“What I read into Attorney General Barr’s comments is he wants people who are protesting in opposition to the administration to be charged with sedition,” Merkley told CNN.
“This is part of an imperial presidency,” he added, “an authoritarian approach where you undermine the legitimacy of the press [and] you absolutely make disagreeing with the administration a crime — charge them with sedition.”
During a House hearing Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “not familiar” with Barr’s reported comments about bringing sedition charges.
“My commitment, our commitment, is to pursue justice in every investigation, to follow the facts, follow the law,” Wray told lawmakers.
“I will confess that I’m not a legal expert on the crime of sedition," he said. “I would have to brush up on that. … Certainly, there is dangerous violent criminal activity that is occurring amid some of the protest around the country.”
Barr’s remarks questioning the judgment of front-line prosecutors were a notable departure even from his predecessor as attorney general. While Sessions took steps to toughen sentencing policies, he was emphatic that prosecutors would retain their discretion.
“I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments,” Sessions said in a 2017 speech. “They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”
Sessions often spoke about his years as a rank-and-file prosecutor and later as a U.S. Attorney in Alabama as the most satisfying of his career. While Barr has worked at the White House, in a series of top jobs at the Justice Department, and as attorney general once before under former President George H.W. Bush, he has never been a courtroom prosecutor.
Barr has faced his most significant scrutiny from former Justice Department officials and legal observers for his intervention in the cases of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime former political adviser.
Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
The Justice Department abandoned its prosecution of Flynn in May after the release of FBI records that disclosed details about the origins of the bureau’s criminal case against him and suggested internal deliberation over how to approach the politically explosive investigation.
In a motion that was not signed by any career prosecutors, who withdrew from the case, the department argued the interview of Flynn lacked an investigative predicate and should not have led to criminal charges.
Stone was convicted on all charges last November for impeding congressional and FBI investigations into connections between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign. Federal prosecutors argued in February he should be sent to prison for roughly seven to nine years.
But after Trump criticized the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in a tweet, the Justice Department submitted a revised filing that offered no specific term for Stone’s sentence but stated that the prosecutors’ initial proposal “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.”
The four government attorneys who had shepherded Stone’s prosecution then withdrew from the case in protest, and Trump personally congratulated Barr for “taking charge” of the matter.
Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.