WASHINGTON • Attorney-General William Barr on Tuesday parried attacks in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, denying accusations that he is doing United States President Donald Trump’s bidding by intervening in high-profile cases and sending federal agents into US cities.
He testified to the House Judiciary Committee for the first time since taking office in February last year as the Justice Department faces criticism for sending federal officers to forcibly disperse anti-racism protesters in Portland, Oregon, and Washington.
Committee Democrats repeatedly interrupted Mr Barr, often running out the clock before he could answer their questions and drawing criticism from Mr Barr’s fellow Republicans, who responded by letting him address the Democrats’ criticism during their own allotted time to ask questions – a tactic that made it easier for Mr Barr to stay on message.
During an exchange about the deployment of federal agents to Portland, where they have clashed nightly with anti-racism demonstrators who have also set fires and thrown objects, Mr Barr responded: “We cannot just stand aside and watch the federal courthouse be destroyed.”
Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the hearing by telling Mr Barr: “Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favours for the President.”
Mr Barr rejected Mr Nadler’s assertion that the deployment of federal agents to US cities was an effort to boost Mr Trump’s re-election campaign.
Mr Barr also denied taking actions to help Mr Trump’s associates, saying they do not deserve special breaks but also should not be treated more harshly than other defendants.
The department’s internal watchdog launched probes last week into federal involvement in the Portland and Washington protests.
Widespread and mostly peaceful protests against racial bias and police brutality have taken place in the US since May 25 when Mr George Floyd, a black man, died under the knee of a white officer.
Mr Barr has highlighted the arson and violence at some protests, blaming them primarily on far-left “antifa” elements – an assertion that is heavily disputed – and urging federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges whenever possible.
Committee Republicans – including ranking member Jim Jordan – highlighted the degree to which Democrats did not allow Mr Barr to speak.
Some Democratic political commentators said the Democrats’ style of questioning had made it easier for Mr Barr to avoid major missteps, instead highlighting scenes of violence at protests that have factored prominently in Mr Trump’s campaign ads.
“Barr is having a great day re-announcing the Trump re-election strategy,” said Mr Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic Party political consultant. He said Mr Barr’s testimony likely would help Mr Trump in his bid to win over crucial suburban voters.