Trump attorney general heads to Capitol Hill for expected contentious hearing

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is defending the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America, saying “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Barr will tell members of the House’s judiciary committee at a much-anticipated hearing on Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. ET that the violence taking place in Portland, Ore., and other cities is disconnected from the death of Floyd, which he described as a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and 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 will say of the Portland protests, according to a copy of his prepared remarks released by the Justice Department on Monday.

Barr will also touch on other controversies that have shadowed his tenure, including his handling of the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, which he derisively refers to as “the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal.'”

The testimony underscores the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and the death of Floyd, which civil rights prosecutors are investigating as a potential crime. Massive but largely peaceful demonstrations had followed Floyd’s death in May.

Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused last week of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause; they were detained and later released.

The attorney general has defended as necessary the broad use of law enforcement power to deal with the situation, but the department’s internal watchdog, as well as the Homeland Security inspector general, have opened investigations into use of force and other tactics by agents in both cities.

The hearing on Tuesday marks Barr’s first appearance before the House’s judiciary committee, bringing him face-to-face with a panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats allege is politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. It comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Barr has taken a series of actions cheered by U.S. President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics.

Those include the Justice Department’s decision to drop the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn and his firing last month of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, whose office oversaw investigations into allies of the president.

WATCH | Democrats ask whose interests Barr is serving:

In testimony to a House judiciary committee, former federal prosecutors accused U.S. Attorney General William Barr of using the Justice Department to cater to President Donald Trump’s interests. 2:00

Barr also pushed for a more lenient sentence for another Trump ally, Roger Stone, prompting the entire trial team’s departure. That decision was at the centre of a separate hearing before the same committee last month, when one of the prosecutors alleged that politics from Justice Department leadership had influenced the handling of the sentence.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday on MSNBC that Democrats want to question Barr about how Trump “is undermining the Constitution of the United States.” Barr previously rebuffed the House committee and Pelosi said that “we hope that he will show up.”

Barr makes reference in his prepared statement to the antagonistic relationship, saying that “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. Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”

Beyond the federal response to the demonstrations, Barr is also expected to be pressed in detail about his intervention in criminal cases arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The hearing will provide Barr with a forum to offer his most detailed account to date for his actions in the criminal cases, which he has said were taken in the interests of justice and without political pressure.

Republicans want update of Durham probe

Republican lawmakers have been overwhelmingly supportive of Barr’s performance and are likely Tuesday to help him push back against some of the Democratic criticism. Even among the Republican members, though, Barr faces pressure to deliver results soon on an investigation that he initiated into the origins of the Russia probe.

It is not clear when or how that investigation, being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, will end, but Barr has said he hopes to have results by the end of the summer.

Barr is just the second man to serve as U.S. attorney general twice after a two-year tenure in George H.W. Bush’s administration in the early 1990s. He was confirmed 54-45 in the Senate in February 2019, mostly along party lines, but some Democrats hoped he would be an experienced and stabilizing force in the turnover-ridden administration.

But he soon rankled many, including Mueller, by issuing a four-page memo on the Russia investigation findings that Democratic critics said whitewashed or ignored the findings that the Trump administration welcomed efforts by Russian actors to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as well as several instances in which the president potentially tried to obstruct justice.

Barr’s actions will also be under scrutiny Tuesday at the House’s natural resources committee, which is
investigating the use of force — and who directed it — against crowds in Washington’s Lafayette Square on June 1.

The U.S. Park Police and Secret Service violently rousted protesters from the square without apparent provocation or adequate warning, immediately after Barr spoke with Park Police leaders, according to the prepared testimony of an Army National Guard officer who was there.

WATCH | Top military official regrets Washington walk:

The top soldier in the U.S. backs away from the president’s response to the protests. Meanwhile, Donald Trump announces a campaign rally that may throw gasoline on the fire. 2:00

The account of National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco challenges the Trump administration’s explanation that vicious attacks by protesters led federal forces to turn on what appeared to be a largely peaceful crowd.

The clearing of Lafayette Square came minutes before Trump appeared in the area without notice, on his way to stage a photo event in front of a historic church nearby. The removal of peaceful protesters drew criticism from the likes of former defence secretary James Mattis and the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.