WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr defended the federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America as he testified for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee, pushing back against Democrats who said President Donald Trump's administration is unconstitutionally suppressing dissent.
The hearing Tuesday highlighted the election-year gulf between the two parties on police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement. Massive protests have sparked unrest across the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and calls for police reform are growing louder.
However, Barr said "violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests" and argued the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Floyd's death, which he called a "horrible" event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement.
However, he also said there was no systemic racism in law enforcement.
"Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd's death or any legitimate call for reform," Barr said of the Portland protests.
The hearing marks Barr's first appearance before the committee after 18 months in office, bringing him face-to-face with the panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats said is politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. But little new ground was uncovered; Democrats often used their five minutes to lay out their frustrations and cut Barr off as he attempted to answer questions.
The hearing comes during a stretch in which Barr has taken actions cheered by President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics. Among them: the Justice Department's decision to drop the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn and Barr's urging for a more lenient sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone, a move that prompted the trial team's departure.
Trump later commuted the sentence entirely.
Republicans were ready to back Barr up, with the top Republican on the panel, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, using his opening statement to show an eight-minute video that spliced together images of violence by protesters around the country.
Democrats retorted with a video of their own of more peaceful protesters, shown by Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline.
"We fought for democracy, for the right to speak freely, and you are attempting to take that away," Cicilline told Barr. "What's worse, you're doing it for the sole purpose of furthering the president's political agenda and generating footage for Trump campaign commercials."
Opening the hearing, committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said the Trump administration had "twisted the Department of Justice into a shadow of its former self," serving the powerful before average Americans. He said the committee has a responsibility to protect Americans "from that kind of corruption."
Nadler said Barr had "aided and abetted" Trump's worst impulses and excoriated him and the Justice Department for turning a blind eye to necessary reforms to police departments, for dismissing Black Lives Matter protests and for flooding streets with federal agents to stop protesters.
Under questioning, Barr defended himself but revealed little new information about his motivations or the Justice Department's recent actions on policing or otherwise.
"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 in his opening statement. "Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today."
On policing, Barr's testimony underscored his department's ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and Floyd's death, which has led to state charges against four officers and is under investigation by federal authorities. Massive but peaceful demonstrations followed Floyd's death in May.
The attorney general acknowledged to lawmakers Floyd's death struck a chord in the Black community because it reinforced concerns Black people are treated differently by police. But he condemned Americans who he said have responded inappropriately to Floyd's death through what he said was rioting and anarchy.
"As elected officials of the federal government, every member of this committee — regardless of your political views or your feelings about the Trump administration — should condemn violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property," Barr said. "So should state and local leaders who have a responsibility to keep their communities safe."