Attorney General William Barr announced a new investigation Tuesday while strongly defending the Justice Department’s actions in protecting the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon.
Barr’s comments came in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a hearing that not only was partisan as expected but characterized by rudeness by the panel’s Democrats.
A Democrat would ask a question, but when Barr began to answer, he or she would interject, “Reclaiming my time” and continue speaking until the allotted time was up.
Despite this tactic, Barr managed to make several points, though he sometimes had to wait for time reserved for Republicans so that he could answer questions posed by Democrats.
Here are six highlights from the testimony of President Dnald Trump’s attorney general.
1. New Probe of ‘Unmasking’
Barr announced that he had tasked a federal prosecutor from Texas with investigating the Obama administration’s “unmasking” of former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and others connected with the Trump campaign in 2016.
Barr told the committee that he assigned U.S. Attorney John Bash of the Western District of Texas to conduct the probe separately from another prosecutor’s ongoing look into the origins of the FBI’s Russia-Trump investigation.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, greeted this as breaking news, as did other Republican members.
In the course of gathering information in surveilling foreign sources, U.S. intelligence agents routinely intercept communications with U.S. citizens.
When that anonymous source is identified at the request of a government official, it’s called unmasking. In and of itself that may not be illegal, but using the person’s identity for political ends could constitute an abuse of power.
Barr previously tasked Bash with this, but apparently that initially was part of the wider probe of the beginnings of the Russia-Trump matter by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, rather than a separate investigation.
“Thirty-eight people unmasked Michael Flynn’s name 49 times in a two-month timeframe,” Jordan said. “Seven people at the Treasury Department unmasked Michael Flynn’s name.”
“Is this an issue that Mr. Durham is looking into?” the ranking member then asked.
Barr responded: “I asked another U.S. attorney to look into the issue of unmasking because of the high number of unmaskings and some that do not readily appear to have been in the line of normal business.”
Jordan: “I want to be clear. So, there is another investigation on that issue specifically going on at the Justice Department right now?”
“Yes,” Barr said.
Jordan: “So Mr. Durham is looking at how the whole Trump-Russia thing started. You have another U.S. attorney [investigating]. Can you give us that U.S. attorney’s name? Is that something you’re comfortable with doing?”
Barr: “John Bash of Texas.”
After some back and forth, Jordan said: “I appreciate that. That’s information the committee did not know.”
2. Video of ‘Peaceful Protests’
During his opening remarks, Jordan presented a video showing TV reporters proclaiming the peacefulness of the summer’s protests before cutting to a press conference with the family of David Dorn, 77, a retired St. Louis police captain who was shot and killed by rioters.
The video then went to mass riots in which participants set fires, looted stores, broke windows, and tore down fences.
Jordan played the video days after Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., declared on camera that Antifa, an extremist group believed to be behind much of the violence, was a “myth.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., showed his own video of what he called peaceful protests that followed the police killing of a handcuffed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
3. ‘Cannot Reasonably Be Called Protest’
Nadler accused Barr and the Justice Department of violating Americans’ civil rights in responding to the violence in some U.S. cities.
“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.”
Barr replied that the attacks on the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland had no resemblance to peaceful protests.
“In the wake of George Floyd’s death, violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims,” the attorney general told the committee. “The current situation in Portland is a telling example. Every night for the past two months, a mob of hundreds of rioters has laid siege to the federal courthouse.”
The rioters have come equipped for a fight, armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles, and explosive devices. Inside the courthouse are a relatively small number of federal personnel charged with the defense of mission to protect the courthouse.
What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called protest. It is by any objective measure an assault on the government of the United States. As elected officials of the federal government, every member of this committee, regardless of your political views and your feelings about the Trump administration, should condemn violence against federal officers and the destruction of federal property.
3. ‘OK to Try to Burn Down a Federal Court?’
Barr at times showed frustration, at one point asking what would happen if someone attempted to burn down the nearby E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C.
“Federal courts are under attack. Since when is it OK to try to burn down a federal court?” Barr said, adding:
If someone went down the street to the Prettyman Courthouse, that beautiful courthouse we have right at the bottom of the hill, and started breaking windows and started firing industrial-grade fireworks in to start a fire, [throwing] kerosene balloons in [to] start fires in the court, is that OK?
Is that OK? No, the U.S. Marshals have a duty to stop that and defend the courthouse. And that is what we are doing in Portland. We are at the courthouse defending the courthouse. We are not out looking for trouble.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., asked about the weapons that rioters brought to the courthouse area in Portland.
“As far as the weapons you mentioned, let me get this straight: My understanding is the people attacking the building had—among other things—rifles, explosives, knives, saws, sledgehammers, tasers, slingshots, rocks, bricks, lasers,” Scalise said. “Have I missed anything? Does that cover it?”
Barr filled in some blanks and repeated some wepaons.
“You have missed some things, but that’s a good list. They have these powerful slingshots with ball bearings that they shoot. They’ve used pellet guns,” Barr said. “Those projectiles have penetrated marshals to the bone. They use the lasers to blind the marshals. They do start fires, if they can get the fire inside or through the windows. They start fires along the outside of the courthouse. When the marshals come out to try to deal with a fire, they are assaulted.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., asked if the courthouse question would extend to the U.S. Capitol, where Congress goes to work.
“Do you think this body right here would rise up if they decided to go and paint the Capitol building?” Collins sasked.
Barr responded: “This body, I’m not sure.”
Collins: “I think this side would. The other side, I’m not so sure. It may be a ‘peaceful protest’ to burn down the Capitol. Maybe we’re back to 1812 again.”
British troops set fire to the White House and the unfinished Capitol during the War of 1812.
4. Impeachment and Jeffrey Epstein
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has earned a reputation for being a rhetorical bomb thrower, and didn’t disappoint at the hearing. Cohen called both for Barr’s impeachment and for seemingly to blame the attorney general for the jailhouse death of financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Cohen said the word “conveniently” in describing Epstein’s death, as if to question whether it was really a suicide.
“You’ve gone through the Fifth Amendment and just negated it, and the 10th Amendment, which leaves general policing to law enforcement, to the states, has been forgotten,” Cohen said.
“Maybe what happened was your secret police were poorly trained,” he told Barr. “Just like your Bureau of Prisons guards were poorly trained and allowed the most notorious inmate in our nation’s last several years—Jeffrey Epstein—to conveniently commit suicide. Sad.”
Cohen invoked the name of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who died July 17 and whose body at the time was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
“Mr. Barr, John Lewis said to us, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’” Cohen said. “That’s why I introduced [a measure] which would require this committee to investigate your conduct as attorney general and determine whether you should be impeached.”
5. ‘What Enemies Have I Indicted?‘
Nadler also accused Barr of “aiding and abetting” Trump as head of the Justice Department.
“Your tenure has been marked by a persistent war against the department’s professional corps 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.”
But Barr pushed back against such claims by Democrats that he is somehow a patsy for Trump.
“The rule of law is, in essence, that we have one rule for everybody,” Barr said. “If you apply one rule to A, the same rule applies to B. I felt we didn’t have this previously at the department. We had strayed.”
This was a gentle reference to the Justice Department during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Barr added:
I would just ask people: I’m supposedly pushing the president’s enemies and helping his friends. What enemies have I indicted? Can you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited, that you feel violates the rule of law? One indictment?
No one offered an example.
As for presidential friends, Barr addressed the cases of veteran GOP operative Roger Stone, whose prison sentence was commuted recently by Trump, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. The Justice Department dropped the case against Flynn that arose from the FBI’s Russia-Trump probe.
“Now, you say I help the president’s friends. The cases that are cited, the Stone case and the Flynn case, were both cases where I determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law, to make sure people are treated the same,” Barr said.
The attorney general took a somewhat different approach to Stone than Trump has, saying he wanted to see Stone go to jail, but with a reasonable sentence.
“Stone was prosecuted under me. I said all along, I thought that was a righteous prosecution. I thought he should go to jail and I thought the judge’s sentence was correct,” Barr said. “But, the line prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice what anyone else in a similar position had ever served.”
This is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence. They were trying to put him in jail for seven to nine years. I wasn’t going to advocate that, because that is not the rule of law. I agree the president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks. But they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people.
6. Local Law Enforcement ‘Do Their Job’
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who attended the hearing remotely, complained that the Justice Department wasn’t working with local law enforcement. She also said those demonstrating in Portland were “mostly nonviolent” and mischaracterized which federal personnel are deployed there.
“It’s one thing to fight crime with joint task forces. That involves the cooperation of state and local officials,” Lofgren said. “But the governor of Oregon and the mayor of Portland have asked that the federal troops leave because the reaction has actually been in reverse proportion. People are showing up because the troops are there. So many of them, I would say most of them, are nonviolent.”
The federal government has not sent any military troops into Portland, only civilian law enforcement officers and agents from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security assigned to protect federal buildings.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, asked about local leaders.
“If local elected officials, mayors and city councils and governors, did their jobs and kept the peace, would it even be necessary for federal law enforcement personnel to be there in the first place?” Chabot asked.
“No. That is exactly the point,” Barr said, adding:
Look around the country. Even where there are these kinds of riots occurring, we haven’t had to put in the reinforcements we have in Portland because the state and local law enforcement does their job and won’t allow rioters to just come and physically assault the courthouse.
In Portland, that’s not the case. … If the state would come in and keep peace on the streets in front of the courthouse, we wouldn’t need additional people at the courthouse.
This report has been corrected to say that British troops set fire to both the White House and the Capitol during the War of 1812.