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In combative hearing, Barr insists he is exercising ‘independent judgment’

Attorney General William Barr faced questions from the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday in a combative hearing delayed for four months because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Barr’s first testimony in over a year, Democrats questioned him about protests in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., Roger Stone’s commuted prison sentence, racism in policing and more. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Delayed for four months because of the pandemic, Attorney General William Barr faced questions from the House Judiciary Committee, in a combative hearing that lasted more than four hours.

    In Barr's first testimony in more than a year, Democrats questioned him about protests in Portland, about Roger Stone's commuted prison sentence, the Russia investigation, and much more.

    Capitol Hill correspondent Lisa Desjardins has our report.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    Please rise. I will begin by swearing you in.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the Capitol, a socially distanced confrontation over justice itself, with Democrats sharply charging that Attorney General William Barr is a puppet for President Trump.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler:

    In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And with Barr insisting any decisions were his alone, not Mr. Trump's.

  • William Barr:

    He has told me from the start that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment, to make whatever call I think is right. And that is precisely what I have done.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The hearing covered well-known flash points, among them, the case of President Trump's friend and adviser Roger Stone, convicted of obstruction and lying to Congress.

    Barr overruled prosecutors in the case to recommend a lower sentence than they had. Barr told Democrats it was the only time he's done that in this administration, but that it was because the original recommendation was way out of line with norms.

  • William Barr:

    The judge agreed with me.

  • Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.:

    I'm not asking whether…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Barr:

    I know you're not asking it. I'm saying it.

  • Rep. Ted Deutch:

    I'm not asking you that.

    And the issue here is — the issue here is whether Roger Stone was treated differently because he was friends with the president.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats sometimes spoke over the attorney general.

    And, often, Republicans, like Mike Johnson of Louisiana, gave him their time to answer and defend himself.

  • William Barr:

    I'm supposedly punishing the president's enemies and helping his friends. What enemies have I indicted?

    Who — who — could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited, that you feel violates the rule of law?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The hearing was not just about Trump and politics, but also about the past few months of protests, violence and police confrontations, including the Trump administration's response recently in Portland, Oregon and more directly for Barr, who was nearby, the use of force to clear out protesters near the White House on June 1.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler:

    The protesters aren't mobs. They are mothers and veterans and mayors.

    In this moment, real leadership would entail de-escalation, collaboration, and looking for ways to peacefully resolve our differences. Instead, you use pepper spray and truncheons on American citizens.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Barr defended the response as necessary, pointing out police and property have been harmed, and a federal building has repeatedly been targeted in Portland.

  • William Barr:

    We are on the defense. It's — we are not out looking for trouble. 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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Above it all, a broader question about policing.

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas:

    Does the Trump Justice Department seek to end systemic racism and racism in law enforcement? I just need a yes-or-no answer.

  • William Barr:

    I don't agree that there is systemic racism in our police departments or generally in this country.

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee:

    Specifically…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, in a separate hearing today, a D.C. National Guard member spoke out against the federal police response to protests.

    Major Adam DeMarco told the House Natural Resources Committee what he saw when authorities moved against the demonstration near the White House on June 1.

  • Adam DeMarco:

    For my observation, those demonstrators, our fellow American citizens, were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights. Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That hearing's other witness, acting Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan, testified that protesters had been combative for days, and the decision to move on them was made by his officers, not by the White House, because they anticipated more violence.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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