July 28, 2020
Attorney General William Barr testified today before the House Judiciary Committee. His combative answers confirmed that he is Trump’s man. He is committed to the narrative that dangerous anarchists are endangering law and order, and that Trump was unfairly targeted by FBI agents in what Barr calls “Russiagate.”
Helping him to bolster this narrative were the Republicans on the committee, especially Jim Jordan (R-OH), who began the Republican side of the questioning with both his signature rapid-fire yelling and a video deceptively edited to give the impression that the country and its police are under siege by violent protesters, and that Trump’s crackdowns are necessary to stop them. He is also on board with ginning up accusations of impropriety over the Russia investigation: he began his tirade with the word “Spying!” (An investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general says the investigation was begun properly, and the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed that conclusion.)
House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) permitted Jordan to show the video, but afterward noted that the committee’s rules required him to say he was doing such a thing 48 hours in advance, which Jordan did not. For Jordan, congressional hearings are all theater to get sound bites and footage for later news clips that will tell a misleading narrative. As Democrats spoke over Barr, Jordan repeatedly complained at their behavior, saying “I do not think we have ever had a hearing where the witness was not allowed to respond to points made, questions asked, and attacks made.” Jordan, of course, is famous for being the member of Congress most notable for precisely this behavior.
Barr’s stance is that he is defending the rule of law in America. When Nadler pressed him on whether the crackdowns were simply an effort to aid Trump’s reelection, Barr said he has chosen the cities he has for “neutral” reasons. (They are all Democratic cities, and the Trump campaign has used video from the crackdowns in campaign ads.)
Barr denied that he had interfered inappropriately in Trump’s friend Roger Stone’s sentencing, although when Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL) asked him to name any other case where the DOJ had called for a more lenient sentence for a defendant who had threatened a judge and a witness, Barr did not answer the question.
Barr denied that he ordered the protesters removed from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. to enable Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s church, although he did say he had learned that afternoon that Trump might walk to the church. He also said that the officers clearing the square did not use tear gas, although recent testimony from Washington, D.C. National Guard Major Adam DeMarco says they did.
Committee Republicans cheered Barr on. Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) asked Barr to use anti-racketeering laws against the protesters. “General Barr, this has to stop,” he said. “We can’t let antifa continue terrorizing our country.”
The most memorable moment of the hearing was when Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) asked Barr why he had responded so differently to the Portland protesters than he did to the armed anti-mask protesters who had swarmed the Michigan Capitol and called for the Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to be “lynched, shot, and beheaded.”
Barr first said he did not know about the Michigan events (this is not believable), and then suggested he was deferring to the state governor. This is belied by the deployment of federal officers in Oregon despite the strong opposition of Oregon Governor Kate Brown. More convincingly, Barr said he was deploying federal forces to defend federal property. Jayapal pointed out that a more likely difference between the two responses was that, in Michigan, white supremacists were threatening to behead a Democratic governor, and in Oregon, protesters were supporting Black Lives Matter.
Overall, the Attorney General signaled that he has every intention of doing all he can to keep Trump in office.
Although the DOJ has a policy of avoiding roiling the country in the 60 days before an election, Barr says that he will, in fact, feel free within that period to release the results of the pending examination he commissioned into the Russia investigation when it became clear the DOJ’s official inspector general had found the probe was lawfully begun. When that happened, Barr tapped the US Attorney for the District of Connecticut, John Durham, to launch his own investigation, traveling with him to Italy and the United Kingdom to talk to people in those countries to investigate the actions of our Intelligence Community. Today, Barr said “Any report will be, in my judgment, not one that is covered by the policy and would disrupt the election.”
And yet, while today’s questioning was about Durham’s report, Barr has repeatedly said that the Russia probe was “one of the greatest travesties in American history,” and that Durham’s job is not to “prepare a report” but establish criminal violations that will lead to prosecutions. Trump supporters expect that Durham’s report will have an important effect on the campaign.
When Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) asked Barr if it was ever appropriate for a president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an U.S. election” Barr first responded: “Depends on what kind of assistance.” After Cicilline made it clear he meant any kind of assistance, Barr answered: “No, it’s not appropriate.” (According to Federal Elections Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub it is illegal.)
Barr reiterated the president’s stance that mail-in ballots will create massive fraud. There is no evidence that this is the case, and many states already have such a system. Indeed, Barr himself, as well as the president, have used mail-in ballot themselves.
Barr also said he would leave office if Trump is not reelected, “if the results are clear.”
Today, the former head of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, Michael Chertoff, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times accusing Trump of “hijacking” the department for his own ends. He noted that Trump’s statements show he is “reveling in the use of brutal and aggressive force, especially in cities that he characterizes as government by liberal Democratic mayors. And if the politically performative aspect of this policy were not already obvious,” he wrote, “it is rendered unmistakable when footage of the mayhem is broadcast by Trump campaign commercials.”
Chertoff noted that, after the June 1 photo-op in front of St. John’s, military leaders had indicated that the military would not back Trump, and had “made explicit and unequivocal statements affirming for their department that the military’s primary loyalty is to the Constitution of the United States and that it must remain apart from politics.” It is “past time” he said, for the leadership of Homeland Security to do the same. “The commitment to the rule of law and to restrained and measured operational behavior must be articulated and carried out. That is especially true as we approach a critical election, to avoid any concern that agents of the department might be deployed to inhibit or frighten certain citizens from going to the polls.”
Meanwhile, Minneapolis police say that the man dressed in black carrying an umbrella who helped to spark the violence in the city after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been identified as a white supremacist intent on inciting violence. So-called “umbrella man” was caught on video smashing windows near the site of Floyd’s murder, starting a wave of fires and looting. He is allegedly a 32-year-old member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and has been linked to confrontation last month with a Muslim woman in a Minneapolis suburb.