Attorney General William Barr started his first testimony before the House Judiciary Committee with a subdued opening statement Tuesday. He skipped part of his prepared remarks that took aim at committee Democrats for “conjuring up a narrative” that he inappropriately used the Justice Department to help President Donald Trump.
But after the first few Democrats gave him little chance to give full answers, Barr started to tangle with lawmakers on the topic of why he intervened to override prosecutors and lower the DOJ’s recommended sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone.
Democrats spent much of their time during Tuesday’s oversight hearing describing why they thought Barr has improperly used the Justice Department in various ways to support Trump’s reelection campaign and personal interests.
Barr’s most fervent exchanges came during discussions about Stone’s case, but Democrats’ questions overall did not serve up many headline-grabbing soundbites from the long-awaited showdown with the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson asked Barr about how he had intervened to lower the DOJ’s recommended sentencing for Stone’s convictions, including lying to Congress, only after Trump had tweeted that it was unfair.
“I’m telling my story, that’s what I’m here to do,” Barr said while trying to answer over Johnson. “Let me ask you, do you think it’s fair for a 67-year-old man to go to prison for seven to nine years?”
When Florida Democrat Ted Deutch tried to press Barr on the details of why he overrode line prosecutors to suggest a lower sentence for Stone — and whether Barr’s decision adhered to department practices — Barr deflected with: “The judge agreed with me, Mr. Congressman.”
Then under questioning from California Democrat Eric Swalwell about Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence — and Barr’s previous statement that it would be a crime for a president to swap a pardon to silence a witness — the attorney general got confrontational about why he was not investigating Trump.
Swalwell laid out some Stone comments, a Trump tweet and other facts he thought showed the president had commuted Stone’s sentence to protect himself.
“We require a reliable predicate before we open an investigation. I consider it a very Rube Goldberg theory that you have,” Barr said. “The true ‘two standards of justice’ were really under the tail end of the Obama administration.”
Barr later defended Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and blamed the Obama administration. “The problem with the testing system was a function of President Obama’s mishandling of the CDC and his efforts to centralize everything in the CDC,” Barr told New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries.
“Thank you, Mr. Barr, that is inaccurate, that’s a myth, that’s a lie,” Jeffries replied.
Overall, Democrats on the committee got little new information from Barr and landed no major political punches during more than four hours of testimony. They often asked questions but did not allow full answers from Barr.
Several Democrats made passionate comments on the Trump administration’s expanding use of federal officers in cities such as Portland, Oregon. Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Trump wants footage for campaign ads and “you appear to be serving it up to him as ordered.”
“Shame on you, Mr. Barr,” Nadler said, as Barr tried to respond. “Shame on you.”
When Barr got a chance to respond under Republican questioning, he said federal officers are just defending the federal courthouse and are not “out looking for trouble.”
And Georgia Republican Doug Collins asked Barr if Congress would rise up to defend the Capitol if protesters decided to go tonight and paint it.
“This body, I’m not sure,” Barr said with a chuckle.
Florida Democrat Val B. Demings, a former Orlando police chief, pressed Barr about the removal of the top prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where there are investigations that might affect Trump and his associates.
“He has never asked me, directed me, pressured me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr replied.
Republicans on the committee focused their questions on the violent actions around protests in Portland and elsewhere. That included a video played by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s top Republican, of burning cars, looting, burning American flags, fires, fireworks and statues being pulled down.
“The video we played, it’s hard to watch. It’s really hard to watch to see that happening in our great country,” Jordan said.
Deep into the hearing, Georgia Democrat Lucy McBath asked Barr if he would continue to push to wipe out the 2010 health care law in a Supreme Court case as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“I’m the lawyer, I’m not in charge of health care policy,” Barr said.
He started to say that people will have health care protection if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, but McBath said she took that as a no and wanted to move on.
Jordan interjected after McBath’s turn to question Barr.
“For months you’ve tried to get the attorney general to come, he’s here, why don’t you let him speak? Why don’t you let him answer the questions?” Jordan asked Nadler. “Time after time, you refuse to answer the attorney general of the United States answered the questions posed of him.”