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Attorney General William Barr defended the federal government’s response to protests over racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic during a tense appearance Tuesday on Capitol Hill, frequently clashing with House Democrats who accused him of pursuing the president’s political agenda in an election year.
Barr was repeatedly criticized by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during the nearly five-hour hearing, his first congressional testimony in more than a year. Republicans on the panel came to his defense, underscoring the deep divide among lawmakers over race, policing, the protests and the public health crisis.
A lack of civility pervaded the hearing, and little new information came out of the day’s proceedings. Democrats frequently cut Barr off, leading him at one point to insist that he be allowed to speak. “I’m going to answer the damn question,” he said.
Here are key takeaways from the hearing.
In his opening statement, Barr called George Floyd’s death in police custody a “shocking event” and said Black Americans had legitimate concerns about mistreatment by the police.
But Barr claimed that “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by Floyd’s death two months ago in Minneapolis. He said members of the anti-facist group Antifa were “heavily represented” at some protests, but did not offer specific evidence.
Barr singled out Portland, Oregon, where people have protested outside of a federal courthouse for two months and have frequently clashed with law enforcement officials. Barr called the protests an “assault on the government of the United States,” and said he was worried the Portland protests could lead to violent attacks against federal property in other U.S. cities.
Democrats criticized the federal crackdown on protesters in Portland. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., argued federal law enforcement officials violated the Constitution by reportedly seizing protesters without probable cause, placing them in unmarked vehicles, and detaining them for several hours before letting them go. “We do not live in a police state,” Lieu said.
Trump drew heavy criticism for having protesters cleared from Lafayette Square in front of the White House on June 1 in order to walk to St. John’s Church for a brief photo opportunity. Barr reportedly gave the order to clear the protesters, and was one of several senior administration officials who walked to the church with Trump.
On Tuesday, Barr said he did not think the use of force against protesters in Lafayette Square was excessive. “I don’t think it was an assault,” he said.
Barr also deflected when asked about his involvement in planning the visit. He said he learned of the president’s plans to leave the White House a few hours beforehand, and was not initially told where Trump planned to go.
Democrats didn’t buy the explanation. “It strains credulity that this was not planned for political purposes,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. He added that clearing peaceful protesters to stage a photo op was an “affront to the Constitution and the American people.”
Barr said in his opening remarks that eight unarmed Black men and 11 unarmed white men have been killed by police so far this year, offering the comparison as proof that racial discrminiation in policing is on the decline, and incidents like Floyd’s death are now “quite rare.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., noted that if those numbers were true, they reflected the reality that police kill a disproportionately high number of Black men each year, given their percentage of the overall population. Barr responded by saying that he had read “studies” — he did not say which ones — showing that “police are less likely to shoot at a Black suspect and a little bit more likely to shoot at a white” suspect.
In fact, studies have consistently shown that Black men are more than two times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
Richmond questioned Barr’s claim. “If that data exists, I would be more than happy to see it,” he said.
In one of the few new pieces of information to emerge from the hearing, Barr said the Justice Department has opened an investigation into alleged instances of improper “unmasking.” Senior government officials can make requests to obtain — or “unmask” — the names of people included in a U.S. intelligence report, but must have a legitimate reason to make the request.
Barr said he had assigned John Bash, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, to lead an investigation into instances in which officials made improper unmasking requests. When asked by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the panel’s ranking member, if the investigation covered the Trump presidency and the end of the Obama administration, Barr responded that the probe spanned “a much longer period of time.” He did not elaborate.
Jordan said the investigation was news to the Judiciary panel. “That’s information that the committee did not know,” he said.
The topic came up after Jordan asked about Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Republicans in Congress and others have claimed that Flynn was improperly “unmasked” by Obama administration officials before Trump took office. Flynn was fired by Trump just weeks into his job. He was later convicted of lying to federal agents about his conversations with Russia in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration.
In May, the Justice Department dropped its case against Flynn. Critics said the decision was an example of Barr using his power to protect Trump’s friends and allies. Barr said Tuesday that he did not believe there was enough evidence to prove Flynn’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Flynn was indicted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to lead the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Mueller probe was expected to play a prominent role at the hearing, but the topic was overshadowed by the focus on the federal response to the protests.
Barr appeared to blame the lack of coronavirus testing in the U.S. on former President Barack Obama, echoing Trump and others who have tried to deflect blame from the administration for the way it has handled the public health crisis.
The comments came during an exchange with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the No. 4 House Democrat. Jeffries criticized Trump’s response to the pandemic, including inadequate testing that has made the virus difficult to contain.
Barr interjected that “the problem of the testing system was a function of President Obama’s mishandling of the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”
“That’s inaccurate. That’s a myth. That’s a lie,” Jeffries shot back.
Moments later, Barr also said the Obama administration was to blame for the lack of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, in the first months of the pandemic.
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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