Contentious 5-hour House hearing with AG William Barr concludes

This is the first time Barr has testified before Congress in more than 450 days.

July 28, 2020, 4:12 PM

Attorney General William Barr is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday for the first time in his year-and-a-half long tenure as the nation's top law enforcement official.

Democrats are grilling him over a long list of controversies and his repeated interventions in matters of interest to President Donald Trump.

Barr's appearance follows more than a year of stand-offs and delays -- he hasn't appeared before any congressional committee since May 2019 when he testified to a Senate panel on his handling of former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russia's interference in the 2016 election -- later declining to appear before the House.

Here's how the hearing unfolded:

Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing in the Congressional Auditorium at the Capitol Visitors Center, July 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images

3:58 p.m. Hearing adjourned

Chairman Nadler adjourned the hearing after a contentious five hours.

2:30 p.m. Barr says use of tear gas appropriate 'to disperse unlawful assembly'

In an exchange during which Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., asks Barr a question about the use of tear gas on Portlander Christopher David -- a Navy veteran seen on viral video being beaten by federal agents -- Barr says, "I don't know what kind of gas it was."

Barr went on to defend the federal presence in Portland and the use of force against protesters, claiming that agents are needed to prevent "violent attacks on federal courts" from "metastasizing around the country."

Asked by Cicilline if it's ever appropriate for officers to use force against peaceful protesters, Barr says it is when the gathering is unlawful.

"It is appropriate to use tear gas when it's indicated -- to disperse an unlawful assembly and sir, unfortunately peaceful protesters are affected by that," Barr said.

But Barr continued to deny the use of tear gas at Lafayette Park on June 1, even as a U.S. National Guard major testified in a different House hearing Tuesday that there was, and that he picked up the shells on the street that day.

PHOTO: Attorney General William Barr appears before a House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr appears before a House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 28, 2020.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP

Cicilline also asks Barr whether it's ever appropriate to accept or solicit foreign election assistance.

"Depends what kind of assistance," Barr said, before being pressed further. "No, it's not appropriate."

"OK, sorry you had to struggle with that one, Mr. Attorney General," Cicilline quipped back.

When Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Mich., challenged Barr on why white nationalist protesters in Michigan earlier this year did not face the same federal response as Black Live Matter protesters, Barr argues it's a matter for governors.

Jayapal also called Barr's denials that tear gas was used in Lafayette Park a "semantic distinction."

1:52 p.m. Committee takes a recess

The House Judiciary Committee take a recess for approximately five minutes.

1:48 p.m. Barr fields questions on why he isn't investigating Trump for Stone commutation, defends BOP decision to revoke Cohen's home confinement

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Mass., presses Barr on why he hasn't launched an investigation into Trump based on his commutation of Stone's sentence and previous testimony during Barr's confirmation in which he said it would be illegal for a president to pardon someone in exchange for a promise that the person not incriminate him.

"Why should I?" Barr said when Swalwell asks why he wasn't investigating Trump.

Swalwell goes on to ask Barr if he was aware of a tweet from the president that said Stone's decision not to cooperate with Mueller's prosecutors showed "guts," and Barr answers he didn't read the president's tweets. Barr then said he believes Swalwell was operating on a "Rube Goldberg" theory in saying the pattern of facts justified an investigation into Trump.

"If I applied this standard there would be a lot more people under investigation," Barr said.

Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing in the Congressional Auditorium at the US Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Matt Mcclain/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Barr then defends the Federal Bureau of Prisons' decision to try and revoke Michael Cohen's release to home confinement after he refused to sign an agreement restricting him from publishing a book -- a decision that a judge reversed last week stating DOJ's actions appeared "retaliatory."

"Something that people don't seem to understand is that his home confinement was not being supervised by the Bureau of Prisons," Barr said. "It was being supervised by the probation office which is part of the U.S. Court system and it was the U.S. Court system that had the requirements about not writing."

Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California then pushes Barr for answers on why those involved in the early stages of the Russia investigation have not been prosecuted.

Barr answers that the COVID-19 crisis delayed some actions U.S. Attorney John Durham was looking to take as part of his investigation, seemingly referring to convening grand juries, before adding, "He is working very diligently and justice isn't something you order up on a schedule like you order pizza."

He then tells McClintock that he "understood" his concern that should Trump be defeated in November it could endanger Durham's investigation.

Barr also criticizes Democrats for what he describes as their failure to condemn those who have sought to vandalize federal courthouses.

"What makes me concerned for the country is this is the first time in my memory that the leaders of one of our great two political parties, the Democratic party, are not coming out and condemning mob violence and the attack on federal courts," Barr said. "Why can't we just say, you know, the violence against federal courts has to stop? Could we hear something like that?"

Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, July 28, 2020.

1:21 p.m. Barr vents anger in exchange on Stone, faces questions on 2020 election

Barr appears to be growing increasingly rankled as Democrats lob accusation after accusation against him, while either declining to let him respond or interrupting him, saying they are reclaiming their time when he tries to answer.

During a probing line of questioning about Barr's intervention in the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Pa., attempts to drill down why Barr would overrule prosecutors who had issued their recommendations for Stone's sentencing based on clearly spelled out DOJ guidelines, as well as who raised the case with Barr in the first place.

Barr fires back, noting that Judge Amy Berman Jackson eventually sentenced Stone to three years in prison, below the original recommendation Barr had overruled.

"The judge agreed with me, Congressman, the judge agreed with me!" Barr said as Deutch pressed him.

Attorney General William Barr during a the House Judiciary Committee hearing July 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"The issue here is whether Roger Stone was treated different because he was friends with the president," Deutch said. "Mr. Attorney General, can you think of any other cases where the defendant threatened to kill a witness, threatened a judge, lied to a judge, where the Department of Justice claimed that those were mere technicalities?"

Barr declines to answer the question directly, instead repeating his previous statement that Judge Berman Jackson "agreed" with his lowered recommendation.

During later questioning with vice presidential hopeful Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Barr says he is not familiar with the high-profile case of the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died after he was apprehended by Aurora, Colorado, police in August 2019.

Rep. Cedric Richmond questions Barr on his unfounded claims that increased mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud.

Barr, asked whether he believed the 2020 presidential election will be "rigged," says, "I have no reason to think it will be." He adds, though, that he stood by his claims that increased mail-in voting presents a "high risk" of massive fraud.

"What I have talked about, made very clear is that I'm not talking about accommodations by people of who have to be out of the state or have particular need not to -- inability to go and vote," Barr said. "What I'm talking about is the wholesale conversion of the election to mail-in voting."

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries confronts Barr with statements from Trump that he says raise the idea that Trump might not leave office if defeated in November. Asked what he would do if Trump loses but refuses to leave office, Barr answers, "If the results are clear I would leave office."

Asked to defend his praise of Trump's response to the COVID-19 crisis, Barr argues former President Barack Obama was largely to blame for the current lag in testing the country is experiencing.

"The problem with the testing system was a function of President Obama's mishandling at the CDC and efforts to centralize everything in the CDC," Barr said.

"That is inaccurate," Jeffries shoots back.

12:40 p.m. Barr asks for a recess

Barr asks for a recess, and the House Judiciary hearing stands adjourned for approximately five minutes.

Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images

12:35 p.m. Barr denies his original order to clear the protesters was related to Trump's photo-op

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas seeks to push Barr on his statements that he doesn't believe "systemic racism" exists broadly in police departments across the country.

"I don't agree there's systemic racism in police departments generally in this country," Barr said.

Confronted by Lee about the limited number of civil rights prosecutions conducted during the Trump Administration, Barr says he believes prosecutions under Section 241 and 242 "are extremely strong," while adding some prosecutions this year have been disrupted because grand juries have largely been suspended during the COVID-19 crisis.

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee goes on to aggressively question Barr about his involvement in the clearing of the mostly peaceful protest in Lafayette Square on June 1.

Barr says he first learned President Trump might come out of the White House "sometime in the afternoon" and that he only learned "later in the afternoon" that he might visit St. John's Church for his photo-op -- but again denies his original order to clear the protesters was related to the photo-op.

In an exchange with Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., Barr says he agreed that those who have referred to law enforcement sent to Portland as "storm troopers" are potentially endangering the officers on the ground.

"I think that's possible," Barr said. "I think it's irresponsible to call these federal law enforcement officers storm troopers."

Reviving Barr's comments made to ABC News criticizing President Trump's tweets on the Roger Stone case, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., seeks to get Barr to admit that Trump's tweet influenced his decision to overrule the prosecutors' sentencing recommendation.

"It was within the guidelines but it was not within Justice Department policy in my view," Barr replied. "Let me ask you. Do you think it's fair? Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?"

Barr then appears to forget that the Justice Department also sought at one point to revise the sentencing recommendation against Flynn before it moved to withdraw the case against him altogether.

12:06 p.m. Barr pushes back against accusations he has politicized the DOJ, says officers are "on the defense" in Portland

Nadler begins his line of questioning noting that Barr incorrectly stated at a July 22 press conference at the White House that the pilot launch of "Operation Legend" in Kansas City had yielded 200 arrests in a span of mere weeks.

"Correct," Barr said, when Nadler noted Barr "misspoke."

"Operation Legend" in Kansas City has, in fact, had only resulted in one arrest in Kansas City at the time Barr made his remarks.

Nadler uses the exchange to try to accuse Barr of wielding the Justice Department's powers to assist in Trump's campaign for reelection. He pushes him to answer whether he's discussed the campaign with Trump, and Barr acknowledges it has come up in conversations but seeks to disconnect that from law enforcement matters.

Barr repeatedly pushes back, saying he rejects the idea that the department has sought to suppress protests rather than arrest those committing violence and vandalism of federal property. He also argues Nadler was conflating the anti-crime initiative under "Operation Legend" and the deployment of federal officers to cities where rioters have threatened federal property.

In his first exchange with a Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Barr seeks to negate claims that he has politicized the Justice Department.

"What enemies [of the administration] have I indicted? Could you point to one indictment?" Barr said. "You you say I helped the president's friends. The cases that are cited, the Stone case and the Flynn case, are both cases where I determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law."

He repeats that he believes the prosecution of Roger Stone was "righteous" and that he only intervened out of a belief that the prosecutors initially recommended an excessive sentence for him.

"The president's friends don't deserve special breaks but they also don't deserve to be treated more harshly than other people," Barr said.

Asked if he believes the role of the attorney general was to be the "president's wingman," as Eric Holder one referred to himself, Barr answers, "No, I have already described what I think the duty of the attorney general is."

He adds of the actions by federal officers in Portland that they are largely, "on the defense" against violent rioters trying to damage the courthouse.

"We are not looking for trouble," Barr said. "If the state and city would provide the law enforcement services that other jurisdictions do we would have no need for additional Marshals in the courthouse."

11:46 a.m. Barr says Justice Department operates independent from Trump

In his opening remarks, Barr defends his "independent judgment" in Justice Department handlings, insisting he has not inappropriately acted to please the president.

"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."

Barr goes on to say Trump "has not attempted to interfere" in his prosecutorial decisions, which might include lessening the sentencing recommendation for the president's longtime friend and campaign adviser Roger Stone and the move to dismiss charges against his first national security adviser Michael Flynn.

"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," Barr said.

11:33 a.m. Nadler says Barr has "aided and abetted the worst failings" of Trump, Jordan goes after Russia investigation, playing video of violence around protests

After saying he's fine after a minor car accident on the way to the hearing, Nadler opens by portraying Barr as a corrupt actor blatantly bending the power of the nation's top law enforcement agency to benefit Trump personally and politically.

"Your tenure has been marked by a persistent war against the department's professional core in an apparent attempt to secure favors for the president," Nadler said. "In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler before questioning Attorney General William Barr at the Capitol Visitors Center, July 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images

He takes Barr to task for the department's recent actions against protesters and its handling of the unrest in Portland and Seattle, where Barr has defended the actions of federal officers sent to protect federal courthouses.

"Others have lost sight of the importance of civil rights law, but now we see the full force of the federal government brought to bear against citizens demonstrating for the advancement of their own civil rights," Nadler said. "There is no precedent for the Department of Justice to actively seek out conflict with American citizens under such flimsy pretext or for such petty purposes."

Nadler goes on to preview several controversies that House Democrats will look to confront Barr on, including but not limited to the deployment of federal law enforcement to cities experiencing unrest and protests, unfounded statements regarding mass voter fraud, and "amplifying" conspiracies coming from Trump by investigating the investigators who launched the Russia probe.

"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, no matter the cost of liberty, no matter the cost of justice," Nadler said. "The administration has twisted the Department of Justice into a shadow of its former self capable of serving most Americans only after it has first served those in power. This committee has a responsibility to protect Americans from that kind of corruption, Mr. Barr."

Republican ranking member Jim Jordan then takes over, using his remarks to highlight alleged abuses in the beginnings of the Russia investigation.

"Spying, that one word. That's why they are after you, Mr. Attorney General," Jordan said.

Jordan then introduces a roughly 10-minute long video splicing clips from the media and other politicians referring to protests around the country as "peaceful protests" side- by-side with clips of violence and an emotional statement from a family member of retired St. Louis Police Captain David Dorn, who was shot and killed by looters in the city on June 2.

Attorney General William Barr takes the oath before he appears before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2020.
Matt McClain via Reuters

9:38 a.m. Hearing delayed after Nadler in car crash

A committee source confirms House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., was in a car accident on his way to the hearing, but he is OK and was en route to Capitol Hill in a cab.

The car hit something, but Nadler was not injured.

The hearing's start will be delayed for at least 45 minutes.

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