WASHINGTON — Democrats grilled Attorney General William Barr at a contentious daylong congressional hearing Tuesday over the Justice Department's handling of politically sensitive cases, federal intervention in major cities during this summer's social unrest and President Donald Trump's mail-in voting conspiracy theories.
In his opening statement at his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Barr said George Floyd's death in police custody in May "understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on longstanding issues in our nation."
And while it was a "shocking event," Barr said, "the fact is that these events are fortunately quite rare."
"According to statistics compiled by The Washington Post, the number of unarmed Black men killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same time period is 11," he testified.
Barr added: "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."
Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who said he had to delay the hearing for an hour because he got into a minor car accident on his way to Washington from New York, said in his opening remarks that Barr has "aided and abetted the worst failings of this president." 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."
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, defended Barr and said Democrats were attacking him because of "spying."
"That one word, that's why they are after you," he said.
Jordan played a mashup of video clips of violence during protests around the country, which omitted images of federal law enforcement officers and members of the military taking aggressive action against protesters.
Barr defended the administration's actions in Lafayette Square in Washington in early June, when officers dispersed a crowd of peaceful protesters with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. In the days leading up to the crackdown, protests in the area had erupted into violence, with officers being injured and a nearby church's being set on fire — a situation that became "so bad" that Trump was rushed to the White House bunker, the attorney general said.
Barr's prepared statement, which he summarized for the committee, said the decision to deploy federal agents to several cities where demonstrations are taking place "has nothing to do with the problem of violent mob rioting" and instead is "designed to help state and local law enforcement to meet their basic responsibility to solve crimes and keep their communities safe."
Barr then addressed the situation in Portland, Oregon, saying: "In the wake of George Floyd's death, violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims. The current situation in Portland is a telling example."
The administration is "trying to protect federal functions and federal buildings" in Portland, he said later, saying it has had to increase the federal presence there because, he said, rioters have been going after those facilities.
At one point, Barr said federal agents are "under attack" and are being "injured."
"It has been constant for 60 days," he said.
Nadler scolded the attorney general, claiming that part of the reason federal agents have intervened in cities is that "the president wants footage for his campaign ads" and "you appear to be serving it up to him."
"Shame on you," Nadler said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., contrasted the administration's actions in Portland with its response to protests against coronavirus lockdowns in Michigan in the spring, when protesters took guns into the State Capitol.
"On two separate occasions after President Trump tweeted 'liberate Michigan' ... protesters swarmed to the Michigan Capitol carrying guns, some with swastikas, Confederate flags and one even with a dark-haired doll with a noose around its neck," Jayapal said, referring to an apparent representation of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
When Jayapal asked whether Barr knew that the protesters in Michigan had called for Whitmer "to be lynched, shot and beheaded," he said he "was not aware" of those threats, adding, "There are a lot of protests around the United States," saying that in June, he was concerned about those taking place in Washington, D.C.
"You take an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests but not right-wing extremists threatening to lynch a governor if it is for the president's benefit," Jayapal said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said she believes Trump is trying to "create the impression that there is violence" and "divert attention from his catastrophic failure in dealing with COVID-19."
Republicans expressed support for Barr. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., said Democrats' claim that the Justice Department has become highly politicized under Barr's leadership is a "totally unfounded allegation."
Barr said in his remarks that the president has not interfered in any Justice Department decisions and that all matters have been left to his "independent judgment." Democrats have accused him of doing the president's bidding in the cases involving Roger Stone, whose prison sentence in the Russia probe was recently commuted by Trump, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose case the Justice Department has sought to drop.
The president "has never asked me, directed me, pressured me to do anything in a criminal case," Barr told Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla.
Barr said that a recommended prison sentence of seven to nine years was too harsh in Stone's case and that there was no comparable case to support such a prison term.
Barr also discussed the Russia investigation in his prepared statement, calling it a "bogus 'Russiagate' scandal" that involved "grave abuses."
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Repeatedly, Barr denied having seen or being familiar with tweets by the president that were revealing on a number of topics, including the Stone case. At one point, Barr claimed that he does not read Trump's tweets.
Barr also addressed mail-in voting concerns, something Trump has repeatedly claimed would lead to fraudulent election results. Asked about the issue by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., Barr said there is a "high risk" that mail-in voting would lead to massive voter fraud, adding, "If you have wholesale mail-in voting, it substantially increases the risk of fraud."
Barr was pressed on the subject. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., pointed to one of Trump's voter fraud theories and said the administration has "no evidence that foreign countries could successfully sway elections with counterfeit ballots."
"Do you?" she asked.
"No, but I have common sense," Barr responded, adding that he does not agree with voting experts who point to multiple levels of security in the mail-in voting process, such as unique bar codes for ballots and signature verification.
Midway through the hearing, Barr was asked whether he would stay in office if Trump loses in November and refuses to accept the results.
"If the results are clear," he said, "I would leave office."