WASHINGTON (AP) – Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America as he testified for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee, pushing back against angry, skeptical Democrats who said President Donald Trump’s administration is unconstitutionally suppressing dissent.
The hearing, held Tuesday as the late civil rights icon John Lewis lay in state steps away outside the Capitol, highlighted the wide 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.
But 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 killing, which he called a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement. But he also said there was no systemic racism in law enforcement.
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 say is politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. But little new ground was uncovered; fuming 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 tumultuous 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 entire trial team’s departure. Trump later commuted the sentence entirely.