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- Attorney General William Barr became increasingly testy with Democrats during a contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
- Barr testified about his oversight of law enforcement's crackdown on largely peaceful demonstrations across the nation, as well as his handling of the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
- Scroll down to read Business Insider's coverage and get key updates from the hearing.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Attorney General William Barr became increasingly testy with Democrats during a contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Barr was called to testify about his oversight of law enforcement's crackdown on anti-racism protests across the nation, as well as his handling of the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The attorney general is a political lightning rod and has taken center stage as one of President Donald Trump's most loyal defenders since taking office early last year.
In his opening statement, the attorney general addressed allegations that he functions more as the president's personal defense lawyer instead of the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
"Ever since I made it clear that I was going to do everything I could to get to the bottom of the grave abuses involved in the bogus 'Russiagate' scandal, many of the Democrats on this Committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President's factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions," Barr said. "Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today."
Tuesday was the first time Barr testified before the judiciary committee. Under the leadership of Chairman Jerry Nadler, the panel has taken point on investigating the White House and Trump over what Democrats characterize as abuse of power, and it played a critical role in his impeachment last year. Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, accuse their colleagues across the aisle of using their power to harass and distract the president.
Barr told lawmakers on Tuesday that Trump "has not attempted to interfere" in any of the decisions he's made related to the Russia probe. "My decisions on criminal matters have been left to my independent judgment, based on the law and fact, without any direction or interference from the White House or anyone outside the Department," the attorney general testified.
He also addressed the forceful crackdown by federal law enforcement agents on what have largely been peaceful protests following the Memorial Day death of 46-year-old George Floyd.
The attorney general called the push by left-wing activists to defund the police "grossly irresponsible." He also said that while Floyd's death in police custody was "horrible" and has "jarred the whole country," there is no "deep-seated racism" within the US law enforcement apparatus.
Scroll down for key updates from the hearing:
Here's a quick rundown of the biggest moments from Tuesday's hearing:
- Barr briefly hesitated when asked whether it's OK for a presidential candidate to seek or accept foreign help ahead of a general election. He eventually replied, "No, it's not appropriate."
- The attorney general said that the "wholesale conversion" of an election to allow everyone to vote by mail would lead to widespread voter fraud.
- Barr defended his controversial intervention in the DOJ's cases against high profile Trump associates like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the former Republican strategist Roger Stone. In both cases, Barr said he acted in accordance with the law and criticized federal prosecutors who withdrew from the cases in protest of his interference.
- The attorney general showered praise on the president, saying Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic was "superb" and that Trump gives him "complete freedom" to oversee the DOJ as he sees fit.
- Barr had several heated exchanges with Democratic lawmakers. Here were some of the biggest ones:
- Rep. Joe Neguse grilled Barr about his statements on the Russia probe and the ouster of then Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman. Barr repeatedly lost his temper with Neguse and demanded that the lawmaker allow him to "answer the damn question."
- Rep. Pramila Jayapal ripped into Barr for treating protesters more harshly than "white men with swastikas" who stormed Michigan's capitol earlier this year.
- Rep. Cedric Richmond sparred with the attorney general over voting by mail and Trump's refusal to say that he will accept the results of the general election.
Barr loses his temper with Democratic lawmaker: 'I'm going to answer the damn question'
Screenshot via Fox News
In a particularly aggressive exchange with Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, Barr demanded that Neguse allow him to fully answer questions about the Russia probe without interruptions.
It began when Neguse asked Barr about an April 2019 statement in which he said the White House "fully cooperated" with Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.
"Today, yes or no Mr. Barr, under penalty of perjury, do you testify that that statement was true at the time you made it?" Neguse said.
"I thought it to be true at the time I made it," Barr said. "Why isn't it true?"
"I'll get to that, Mr. Barr," Neguse said as Barr tried to interject. "Reclaiming my time. You answered the question. I have another question for you. On June 19 —"
Barr then interrupted again, saying, "Actually, I need to answer that question."
"Mr. Attorney General, you did answer the question," Neguse began.
"No you said under penalty of perjury. I'm gonna answer the damn question, OK?" Barr said as laughter rippled through the hearing room. He went on to clarify that he was referring specifically to the production of documents when he said the White House cooperated with Mueller's probe.
Neguse then moved on to the controversial firing of the former Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman. He pointed to Barr's announcement of Berman's dismissal, in which he said Berman was "stepping down" as the country's top federal prosecutor.
"Do you testify today that that statement was true at the time the department issued it?" Neguse asked.
"He may not have known it, but he was stepping down," Barr replied while laughing.
Neguse was incredulous: "He may not have known that he was stepping down? That's your testimony today?"
"He was being removed," Barr said, before Neguse cut him off.
"The statement did not say that he was being removed, it did not say that he was being fired," Neguse said. "It said that he was stepping down. And apparently your testimony today is that that was, in fact, accurate when Mr. Berman has testified under oath to this committee that it, in fact, was not."
Barr hesitates to respond when asked if it's ok to accept foreign election assistance
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island asked Barr whether it's ever appropriate to accept or solicit foreign election assistance.
"Depends what kind of assistance," Barr said.
"Is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election?" Cicilline repeated.
Barr paused before replying, "No, it's not appropriate."
"OK, sorry you had to struggle with that one, Mr. Attorney General," Cicilline said.
Barr says he doesn't read Trump's tweets despite earlier claims that the president's tweets make it hard for him to do his job
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
California Rep. Eric Swalwell asked Barr about Trump's decision to commute the prison sentence of the former Republican strategist Roger Stone. Specifically, he asked the attorney general whether it's a crime for a sitting US president to dangle a pardon in exchange for a witness' silence. Barr said it is.
Swalwell then asked the attorney general why he isn't investigating Trump's decision to commute Stone's sentence, given that Stone "was in a position to expose Donald Trump's lies."
Barr replied that he didn't believe that was a legitimate reason to launch an investigation and said Swalwell was putting forth a "Rube Goldberg theory" on the matter.
Swalwell then brought up a December 2018 tweet from Trump in which he praised Stone for having the "guts" to not testify against him.
When Barr said he was "not familiar" with the tweet, Swalwell asked him whether he reads Trump's tweets.
"No," Barr replied.
In February, however, the attorney general acknowledged that he's aware of what the president tweets about.
"I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me," Barr told ABC News. "I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases."
Barr says the Trump administration 'did a good job of mustering' COVID-19 personal protective equipment and blames Obama for not replenishing the national stockpile
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
In a fraught exchange with New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Barr claimed that the Trump administration "did a good job" of scrounging up personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jeffries began by pointing out that Trump in May called news of PPE shortages "fake news." At the time, nurses and other healthcare workers had to resort to wearing garbage bags and ski goggles to protect themselves while treating patients.
"I think the administration did a good job of mustering PPE, and the national supply of PPE was run down during the Obama administration and never replaced," Barr said.
Fact check: It's true that the national emergency stockpile was seriously depleted during Obama's presidency, in part because the previous administration deployed the stockpile's resources during multiple health crises and natural disasters, according to USA Today. Congressional budget battles and a failure to use available funds to revamp the stockpile also led to a shortage in resources.
That said, the Trump administration also failed on multiple occasions to replenish supplies despite warnings from public health officials.
And in early February, as the virus gained a foothold in the US, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked the White House to allocate $2 billion to replenish the national emergency stockpile, The Washington Post reported. The White House agreed to just a quarter of that.
Jeffries on Tuesday pointed out Trump's claim this month that 99% of COVID-19 cases are "totally harmless" and asked Barr for his reaction.
"I think, essentially, what he was saying is that the fatality rate relatively is very low," the attorney general said.
"The answer is 150,000 Americans are dead," Jeffries shot back. "It has been a failure of epic proportions. In fact, Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the worst failure of any president in American history, and the American people have paid the price."
Barr says an outside prosecutor is probing 'the high number of unmaskings' related to Michael Flynn
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Ohio congressman Jim Jordan asked Barr whether John Durham, an outside prosecutor reviewing the origins of the Russia probe, is also looking into "unmasking" issues related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
"Unmasking" refers to the practice of revealing the identity of a US person whose name is incidentally collected in intelligence reports monitoring the communications of foreign agents.
Barr said that he'd tapped another US attorney to look specifically into "unmasking" because of "the high number of unmaskings and some that do not readily appear to have been in the line of normal business."
The Justice Department first confirmed this in late May and said Barr asked John Bash, the US attorney in Texas, to investigate the matter.
Fact check: The US intelligence community surveils hundreds of thousands of foreign targets per year, and unmasking is a routine and legal tool officials use to make more sense of the communications they're monitoring. The intelligence community gets thousands of unmasking requests a year.
Trump and his allies have accused Obama administration officials of illegally unmasking Flynn's name in intelligence reports in 2016 and 2017 monitoring the communications of Sergey Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the US. But a Washington Post report in May debunked that allegation when it revealed that Flynn's name was never "masked" in the first place.
Nadler yells at Republican lawmakers for 'violating the rules of the committee' and not wearing masks
After Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond wrapped up his questioning with the attorney general, Nadler addressed GOP congressmen Jim Jordan, Andy Biggs, and Mike Johnson.
"I would remind Mr. Jordan, Mr. Biggs, and Mr. Johnson to stop violating the rules of the committee, to stop violating the safety of the members of the committee, to stop holding themselves out as not caring by refusing to wear their masks," Nadler said.
One of the Republican lawmakers then interjected, "Is it permissible to drink — to sip coffee?"
"It is not permissible," Nadler said.
"We can't drink coffee?" the lawmaker said, before Nadler banged his gavel and questioning resumed.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal rips into Barr for treating protesters more harshly than 'White men with swastikas'
Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal made headlines with her sharp criticism of Barr's treatment of the president's detractors compared to those who support him.
"When protesters carry guns and Confederate flags and swastikas" and advocate for violence against Michigan's governor, "somehow you didn't know about it," Jayapal said. "So you didn't send federal agents to do to the president's supporters what you did to the president's protesters."
Watch the exchange below:
—Caroline Orr (@RVAwonk) July 28, 2020
Democratic lawmaker spars with Barr over Trump's bogus claims of election rigging and voter fraud
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond sparred with the attorney general over Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud and election rigging ahead of November. He also asked Barr about suggestions that Trump may move the date of the election amid the spread of COVID-19.
"Can a sitting US president move an election date?" Richmond asked Barr.
"Actually, I haven't looked into that question under the Constitution," the attorney general said. "I've never been asked the question before, I've never looked into it."
(Fact check: Trump cannot unilaterally decide to cancel or postpone the general election by issuing an executive order, declaring a national emergency, or trying to institute martial law.)
Richmond also asked Barr whether he believes the election will be "rigged" against Trump. Barr said he has "no reason to think it will be."
Richmond then asked Barr whether he believes that voting by mail will lead to "massive voter fraud."
"I think there's a high risk that it will," Barr said.
"Do you ever vote by mail in ballot?" Richmond asked.
"Apparently I did once, at least," Barr replied.
"But do you believe that other people voting by mail could lead to massive fraud?" Richmond asked.
"No," Barr said. "What I've talked about, made very clear, is that I'm not talking about accommodations to people who have to be out of the state, or have some particular need not to — inability to go and vote. What I'm talking about is the wholesale conversion of election to mail-in voting."
Richmond then noted that Black people have been disproportionately dying from COVID-19.
He added that this would not be the first time "that African-Americans would risk their lives to vote in this country to preserve its democracy. But the suggestion is that them having the ability to vote by mail would somehow lead to massive voter fraud."
"No, I didn't say that," Barr shot back. "I just stated what I think is a reality, which is that if you have wholesale mail-in voting, it substantially increases the risk of fraud."
(Fact check: Business Insider's Grace Panetta reported that while mail voting is not inherently fraudulent or corrupt, as Trump has falsely claimed for months, it is subject to more complications and user error than voting in person.)
Richmond then moved on to Trump's suggestion that he may not accept the results of the election if he believes it's been rigged against him.
"Can a president just protest because he lost an election?" Richmond asked. "Can he contest an election just simply because he loses? If it is very clear that the president has lost an election, does he have a remedy to contest the election?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Barr said.
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz calls antifa a 'terrorist organization' while remaining silent about white supremacist-linked violence during Floyd protests
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz asked Barr about antifa, a loosely organized group of far-left activists.
In June, Gaetz described the group as a terrorist organization and asked to "hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East."
"You've recently said that you believe antifa to be a terrorist organization," Gaetz said to Barr on Tuesday. "What's your basis for that characterization?"
Barr said that while he didn't recall describing the group that way, "antifa is heavily represented in the recent riots."
"That's not to say they're the only group involved," he added, but "they have been identified as involved in a number of the violent mob actions that have taken place around the country."
The attorney general went on to say that antifa "can be best thought of" as an "umbrella term for what is essentially a movement comprised of loosely organized groups around the country."
"They have an anarchic temperament," he said, which makes it difficult for the group to work cohesively. "I'm not suggesting it's a national organization," Barr said, but there tends to be "a lot of organization right before an event" and "during the mob violence."
Fact check: Trump, Barr, and Republican lawmakers have consistently accused antifa of inciting violence connected to the protests, and the DOJ recently said it will treat antifa-related activity as domestic terrorism.
But a closer examination of media reports, public records, intelligence assessments, and social media activity shows little evidence of a widespread or coordinated effort by antifa to weaponize the protests. There's also been radio silence from Trump and Republican officials about credible warnings of violence in the protests linked to right-wing and white supremacist groups.
Republican lawmakers turn the hearing into a masterclass in misinformation
Doug MIlls-Pool/Getty Images
As Tuesday's hearing went on, it appeared to devolve into two separate hearings.
Democrats zeroed in on Barr and Trump's handling of nationwide protests against police brutality, accusing the attorney general of ordering the use of excessive force against demonstrators and demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Republicans focused on a range of topics from the Russia investigation to the anti-racism protests. Here's a sampling of some of their boldest and most unfounded claims:
- The "Obama-Biden" Justice Department "spied" on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election and tried to stage a coup after he won the race.
- Obama's DOJ sent a "secret agent lady" to trap the former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
- Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert compared the police brutality protests to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
- Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said "people in our own government" engaged in a "criminal conspiracy" to try to "convince intelligence agents and operatives around the world to destabilize our election and discredit our president."
- Several Republican lawmakers and the attorney general accused violent agitators of hijacking peaceful protesters.
Barr mischaracterizes former Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman's abrupt firing
Texas congressman Louie Gohmert asked the attorney general about his recent public standoff with the former Manhattan US attorney Geoffrey Berman.
Barr abruptly announced that Berman was "stepping down" from his role on a late Friday evening last month, and that he would be temporarily replaced by Craig Carpenito, the US attorney for the District of New Jersey.
Berman released a statement afterward saying, "I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York."
"What caused him to think he owned that position?" Gohmert asked Barr.
"I think part of it was he seems to have had the view that because he was court appointed and there is a provision in law for court appointment of a US attorney ... that he felt he could not be removed by the president, because he was court appointed," Barr said. "And that's not correct."
Fact check: Berman did not say Trump could not remove him. Rather, he said the attorney general could not remove him and that he would only step down "when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate."
Barr then told Berman in a letter that at his request, President Donald Trump had fired Berman. He added that "by operation of law," Audrey Strauss, the deputy Manhattan US attorney, would serve in an acting capacity.
Berman officially resigned later that day, saying he did so after Barr's decision to "respect the normal operation of law" and appoint Strauss, instead of Carpenito, to temporarily oversee the SDNY.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert suggests the federal government should shut down police brutality protests to stop the spread of COVID-19
Gohmert, another staunch Trump defender on Capitol Hill, asked Barr whether the federal government should shut down anti-racism protests to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"Would it be a good idea ... that maybe the federal government should shut down the protests during this COVID-19 spread so that we can satisfy our colleagues that you're doing more to stop it?" Gohmert said. "Has that ever been a consideration?"
"No, I've never considered that," Barr said, as Gohmert laughed.
Barr defends his intervention in the DOJ's cases against Trump allies Michael Flynn and Roger Stone
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana asked Barr to address allegations that he's acting as a shield for Trump and a sword against his perceived foes.
"I would just ask people, I'm supposedly punishing the president's enemies and helping his friends," Barr said. "What enemies have I indicted? Could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited?"
He also addressed his handling of the DOJ's cases against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the former Republican strategist Roger Stone.
The department is currently asking a court to dismiss its own case against Flynn, saying it no longer believes it has enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and acknowledged his guilt to the court twice before later trying to withdraw the plea.
And Trump recently commuted Stone's sentence after Barr and senior DOJ leadership overrode prosecutors working on his case to request a more lenient sentence for the longtime strategist.
Stone was convicted of seven felony counts including witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and lying to Congress.
The cases against the two men were "both cases where I determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law, to make sure that people are treated the same," Barr said.
"This is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence, and they were trying to put him in jail for seven to nine years," Barr added, referring to Stone. "And I wasn't going to advocate that, because that is not the rule of law."
"The president's friends don't deserve special breaks, but they also don't deserve to be treated more harshly than other people," he said.
After Barr intervened in Stone's case, all four line prosecutors on it either resigned from the case or left the department all together. One of the prosecutors on Flynn's case also withdrew as counsel for the government shortly before the DOJ asked a judge to toss out the case, and none of the prosecutors signed onto the motion.
Aaron Zelinsky, a former member of the special counsel Robert Mueller's team who worked on Stone's case, testified to Congress last month that DOJ leaders sought a weaker sentence for Stone at Barr's direction because they were "afraid of the president."
And Jonathan Kravis, another prosecutor who worked on Stone's case and who left the department after Barr intervened, called the Flynn reversal an "appalling" decision that "undercut the work of career employees to protect an ally of the president."
Barr: 'We are on the defense. We're not out looking for trouble'
Nadler accused Barr of deploying federal law enforcement agents to forcibly tamp down on demonstrations and of using excessive force against protesters.
But the attorney general pushed back on Nadler's characterization and mentioned recent protests in Portland that have spiraled out of control. In that case, Barr said, law enforcement officers are the ones who are "under attack."
"We are on the defense, we're not out looking for trouble," Barr said. "And if the state and the city would provide the law enforcement services that other jurisdictions do, we would have no need to have additional marshals in the courthouse."
Portland has seen more than two months of ongoing demonstrations against police brutality following Floyd's death. On Monday, police used tear gas to dispel protesters and labeled a gathering near the city's courthouse "unlawful" after demonstrators threw fireworks and trash over a fence that was erected to guard the courthouse.
Portland mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have sharply criticized the federal response to the demonstrations and called for them to leave the city, saying the use of tear gas, force, and pulling protesters into unmarked vans is exacerbating tensions.
Meanwhile, a number of groups came out to the city to support protesters and protect them from law enforcement officials. On Monday, a "Wall of Vets" joined with a "Wall of Moms" and "Wall of Dads" to guard demonstrators.
Barr says he's discussed Trump's reelection campaign with him
Nadler opened his questioning by asking Barr if he had discussed Trump's reelection campaign with the president, any White House official, or any surrogate of the president.
"Well, I'm not going to get into my discussions with the president," Barr said.
"Have you discussed the topic with him, yes or no?" Nadler asked.
"Not in relation to this program," the attorney general said, referring to federal law enforcement's approach to dealing with police brutality protests.
"I didn't ask that," Nadler shot back. "I asked if you discussed it —"
Barr said, "I'm a member of the cabinet, and there's an election coming up. Obviously the topic comes up."
"So the answer is yes," Nadler said.
"The topic comes up in cabinet meetings and other things," the attorney general said. "It shouldn't be a surprise that the topic of the election comes up —"
"I didn't say I was surprised," Nadler interjected. "I just asked you if you'd done that."
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan airs misleading and propaganda-like footage of protests
Screenshot via Fox News
During his opening remarks, Ohio congressman Jim Jordan aired a series of video clips of news anchors and television commentators saying the Floyd protests have been largely peaceful. Jordan then aired video footage showing riots and clashes between law enforcement officers and protesters.
He declined to note that much of the violence connected to the protests has escalated after officers used batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other materials to disperse peaceful demonstrators.
—Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 28, 2020
Some journalists who were featured in the footage Jordan aired later accused the lawmaker of misconstruing their comments.
—Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) July 28, 2020
—Kayla Epstein 📰 (@KaylaEpstein) July 28, 2020
Ohio Rep. and ranking member Jim Jordan attacks the 'Obama-Biden DOJ' for 'spying' on the Trump campaign
Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, the ranking member on the committee, kicked off his opening remarks by rehashing many of the talking points Republicans have put out to defend Trump during the Russia investigation.
Jordan, one of the president's biggest attack dogs on Capitol Hill, told Barr that Democrats targeted him because he used the word "spying" to describe the FBI's actions during the 2016 campaign.
"You had the courage to state the truth," Jordan told Barr. "They attacked you, they've been attacking you ever since, every day, every week, for simply stating the truth: that the Obama-Biden administration spied on the Trump campaign."
(Fact check: The DOJ's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, determined after an internal investigation that the FBI did not improperly spy on the Trump campaign.)
The "Obama-Biden DOJ opened the investigation in July , they used a secret agent lady to spy on [former Trump campaign aide George] Papadopoulos in August, they lied to the FISA court in September, and they did all this without any basis for launching the investigation to begin with," Jordan said.
(Fact check: Horowitz's investigation determined that the FBI violated protocol when applying for a warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign foreign-policy aide Carter Page. The inspector general found that the bureau was sloppy in its application and overstated the legal basis for monitoring Page, but he determined that this spoke to a broader problem with US surveillance of citizens rather than a specific, politically motivated attempt to smear candidate Trump, as Republicans have alleged.)
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