Attorney General William Barr defended his independence amid accusations by House Democrats that he had politicized the Justice Department (DOJ) in an effort to secure favors for President Donald Trump.
Barr on Tuesday defended a series of decisions before the House Judiciary Committee, saying that they were made to restore the rule of law and ensure the administration of one system of justice. His appearance before the committee was highly anticipated after the department garnered intense scrutiny for actions taken that appeared to benefit the president and his allies.
House Democrats have been seeking Barr’s testimony over his involvement in a series of events, which they characterized as a departure from democratic norms and an erosion of the separation of powers. The lawmakers have long accused the attorney general of acting under the influence of Trump and shielding him from investigations for alleged corruption.
“Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the Department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the President,” Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee’s chairman, said during his opening statement. “In your time at the Department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of this President.”
The attorney general rejected the claims in his own opening statement, accusing Democrats on the committee of attempting to “discredit” him by “conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions.”
“The President has not attempted to interfere in these decisions. On the contrary, he has told me from the start that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment to make whatever call I think is right,” he said. “That is precisely what I have done.”
Barr added that he returned to the department as attorney general after his first stint under former President George HW Bush in the 1990s because he was “deeply troubled” by the increasing use of the criminal justice process as a political weapon and the emergence of two separate standards of justice, according to Barr’s prepared statement released by the DOJ.
“The Department had been drawn into the political maelstrom and was being buffeted on all sides. When asked to consider returning, I did so because I revere the Department and believed my independence would allow me to help steer her back to her core mission of applying one standard of justice for everyone and enforcing the law even-handedly, without partisan considerations,” he said.
Tuesday’s hearing, which was billed as a DOJ oversight hearing, marks the first time Barr had appeared before the committee, despite his tenure as Trump’s top law enforcement officer being his second time in the role.
Throughout the hearing, the Democrat lawmakers grilled Barr over his involvement in several cases involving Trump’s allies—Roger Stone and Michael Flynn—accusing him of shielding them from prosecution and punishment. Under Barr, the Justice Department sought to lower a sentencing recommendation in Stone’s case after four line prosecutors recommended 7 to 9 years. The department also sought to drop its case against Flynn after a series of exculpatory information was made public.
“Now you say I helped the president’s friends … both cases, I determined some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law, to make sure the people were treated the same,” Barr said.
“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, and sometimes that is a difficult decision to make especially when you know you’re going to be castigated for it. But that is what rule of law is,” he added.
He also challenged his critics over the allegations, asking them to point to an indictment under the department that they feel was “unmerited.”
“I am supposedly punishing the president’s enemies and helping the president’s friends. What enemies have I indicted? 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?” Barr asked.
During the hearing, Barr also defended federal law enforcement response to violent rioting happening in several cities around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He said the rioting occurring around a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, is an assault on the U.S. government, carried out by rioters armed with “powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles, and explosive devices.”
“What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States,” Barr said. “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.”
The Trump administration’s decision to surge federal forces to Portland to protect federal buildings and monuments has drawn widespread scrutiny. The city has seen over 55 consecutive days of rioting and violence. Rioting began in the city in late May in the wake of Floyd’s death, but local and state officials said the unrest further escalated after federal forces were dispatched to the city.