NEW YORK — On Monday morning, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on crime at a federal building in downtown Manhattan. Although so-called field hearings, held outside of Washington, D.C., are a well-established practice, Monday’s proceedings were a remarkable and sometimes rancorous display.
What was the stated point of Monday’s hearing?
The title of Monday’s hearing, “Victims of Violent Crime in Manhattan,” was intended as a referendum on the policies of Alvin Bragg, the progressive Manhattan district attorney who recently indicted former President Donald Trump for falsifying business records.
Republicans said that because Bragg’s office receives some federal funding, Congress has oversight over his policies. “We certainly have a right, in Congress, to overview a lot of different subjects,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., told reporters after the hearing.
Critics of Bragg have said his focus on reforms like decarceration and restorative justice is misguided, especially at a time when New York is trying to recover from an upsurge in street crime. But it is his focus on Trump that has made him the focus of Republican ire, with Trump and others depicting Bragg as a “puppet” of billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Democrats govern most major American cities, but it is not clear that Republicans are more effective at making cities safe. Jacksonville, Fla., the largest city in the United States with a Republican mayor, is much more violent than New York.
Crime rates in New York City are declining so far this year, but the profusion of homeless people on streets and in subways and other visible signs of disorder have left many New Yorkers and visitors uneasy. Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., said she loves New York but was dismayed by the streetscape she saw during her taxi ride from the airport into the city.
“We’re heading for anarchy and lawlessness,” she argued, though it is not clear that she witnessed crimes taking place or merely the results of chronic institutional neglect, including racist housing policies and shortfalls in public education.
Sometimes, Republicans took issue with progressive policies that are beyond Bragg’s control, like Raise the Age — a law that mandates that 16- and-17-year-olds be treated as minors. The easy availability of guns and drugs poses challenges to conservatives and progressives alike.
“We live in a violent country like no other advanced nation,” said Jim Kessler, an executive at the center-left think tank Third Way, who tried to temper Republicans’ assertions with statistical context about both crime rates and gun trafficking.
“The fact is that New York City is not only safer than most large cities in America. It is safer than most cities of any size, and on a per capita basis, New York City is safer than most of the states of the members sitting on the dais on the majority side,” Kessler said.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, has advocated a law-and-order response to the crime surge of the previous two years, frequently proposing policies — involuntary confinement of mentally ill homeless people, for example — that dismay civil libertarians and social justice activists.
Still, it is useful for Republicans to portray big cities as cauldrons of despair that need to be rescued from Democratic control. “Soft-on-crime policies are going to ruin this great city,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the combative chair of the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of Trump. “That’s why we are here.”
What was the subtext?
“I do think that there’s a reason why we’re in this jurisdiction,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., noting that the Ohio district Jordan represents has higher crime rates than New York does. “I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re in New York because of the case New York vs. Donald J. Trump.”
Last month, Bragg charged the former president with 34 counts related to a 2016 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, which was intended to keep her quiet about an affair she had had with Trump years before. Nearly all Republicans decried the prosecution as being motivated by political animus.
As one of Trump’s most aggressive defenders in Washington, Jordan demanded that Bragg’s office cooperate with a House investigation of the Daniels case. Bragg then sued Jordan, deepening the feud between the former Ohio State wrestling coach and the star Harvard graduate from Harlem.
Democrats who attended Monday’s session insisted there was no reason to conduct a hearing in New York, given that Republican-led states tend to have higher rates of murder and other violent crimes than Democratic ones.
And they criticized their GOP colleagues for not doing more to stop gun violence. “If my colleagues across the aisle were really concerned and really cared about reducing violent crime, they’d work with Democrats to pass common-sense gun laws,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.
President Biden signed some modest gun control measures into law last year, after shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., horrified the nation. But as Johnson noted, more substantive measures, like universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, remain a legislative impossibility, at least at present.
Arguments about gun control drew an angry response from Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind. “I just don’t see how I and my kids are going to be safer if I lock up my guns.” she said. “Is there anything else you can say [other] than gun control?”
What is the 'day one' memo?
Republicans frequently referenced a memorandum Bragg issued on Jan. 3, 2022, just two days after taking office. In the notice to his prosecutors, Bragg wrote that he wanted to use incarceration only as a “last resort.”
The memo called for shorter sentences, less use of pretrial detention and more focus on reentry programs. But after criticism that the new policies would make the city less safe, Bragg withdrew the guidance.
Still, his critics believe the policies outlined in the withdrawn memorandum are a genuine expression of his police goals. On Monday, Jordan said the notice “sent a message to the bad guys in this town” that they could act with impunity.
Who were the witnesses?
The most prolific witness at Monday's hearing was bodega worker Jose Alba, who in 2020 stabbed an assailant in self-defense during a dispute over payment. Bragg charged him with murder, and though the charges were eventually dropped, Alba had to spend several harrowing days in detention at Rikers Island, the city’s notorious jail.
“My story is one that should not happen again,” Alba said through a translator. After his statement was read, there was clapping from the audience, in a departure from the usual congressional decorum.
Madeline Brame delivered emotional testimony about the fatal stabbing of her son Army Sgt. Hason Correa in Harlem. The killing took place in 2018, well before Bragg took office, but she strongly criticized him for offering lenient sentences to two of the suspects.
“He was handed a strong murder case,” Brame said. “As soon as he took office, the case began to unravel.” She forcefully disputed a suggestion from Lofgren that she and the other witnesses were being “used” by House Republicans to attack Bragg and thus weaken the case against Trump.
Witness Barry Borgen similarly laid into Bragg for a lack of stronger sentences for the suspects in an antisemitic attack against his son Joey. One of those suspects, Waseem Awawdeh, said he would “do it again” after his arrest.
Speaking, as other victims’ relatives did, with unsparing emotion, Borgen criticized the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Jerry Nadler of Manhattan, for not doing more to hold Bragg accountable.
“You’re a Jewish New Yorker. You have Jewish roots here. Behavior like this enables DA Bragg to do whatever he wants to do,” Borgen said.
What about Trump?
Trump hovered over the proceedings, even as Republicans insisted he had nothing to do with the subject or setting of the hearing. “We absolutely didn’t do this for an exercise. We absolutely didn’t do this for politics,” Van Drew of New Jersey said. “I don’t give a damn about his issues right now.”
Democrats countered with statistics, pointing out that if the purpose were truly to hold a hearing at a site representative of the nation’s crime problem, it would be held in one of the cities with the highest crime rates. Several speakers noted that Jordan’s home state of Ohio and its largest cities — Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron and Toledo — have higher violent crime rates than New York City.
“Let the DA do his job,” Adams, the New York City mayor, said at a press conference before the hearing began.
After the hearing concluded, a small but boisterous group of Trump supporters crowded into a hallway, bearing signs and flags proclaiming their support for a former president who is increasingly seen as the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, despite his mounting legal troubles.
“Long live Trump!” they shouted.