Attorney General William Barr officially testified Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time in his more than one-year tenure with the Trump administration.
The hearing came nearly four months after Barr’s initial March 31 agreement to testify — which was proceeded by months of posturing that included several House Democratic subpoenas directed at the Justice Department, as well as the cancellation or delaying of previously scheduled inquisitions by both involved parties.
Once the hearing finally got underway, proceedings were hardly civil as House Democrats finally got the opportunity to field long-burning questions regarding the Justice Department’s 2020 presidential election preparations, response to recent nationwide civil unrest and the treatment of both the Mueller investigation and its resulting prosecutions.
The adversarial nature of the process, however, did little to spook Barr, making for a series of eye-catching moments on the part of the attorney general.
1. “Before or after the fire was put out?”
A primary Democratic concern from early on in the hearing was whether the federal law enforcement response to ongoing riots and racial unrest in America’s largest metropolitan areas has been lawful and proportionate.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland revived that line of questioning roughly midway through the afternoon, applying particular scrutiny to enforcement tactics employed in the June 1 suppression of destructive demonstrations in and around the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
The Lafayette Square incident had been the subject of major controversy last month, with progressives decrying President Donald Trump and his administration for the employment of non-lethal weapons in attempts to disperse crowds outside the church, which had fallen victim to arson the previous evening.
Referring to the law enforcement response as an “assault,” Raskin became the recipient of cutting pushback from the attorney general Tuesday after the Democratic congressman attempted to use the negative public remarks of church leadership to bolster his claim that the DOJ had overreacted.
“Are you aware the rector of the church, that the Episcopal archbishop of Washington and the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church nationally, along with the Catholic bishop of the archdiocese of Washington, all denounced this police assault on the civil rights and civil liberties of the people?” Raskin asked.
“Did they do that before or after the fire was put out?” Barr asked in response.
2. “A very Rube Goldberg theory”
Another contentious issue on the docket Tuesday was the presidential commutation of 2016 Trump campaign associate Roger Stone‘s 40-month federal prison sentence for charges that included lying to Congress and witness tampering regarding the Russian election interference investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Former 2020 Democratic presidential primary hopeful and California Rep. Eric Swalwell pressed the attorney general hard on the incident, demanding to know whether the Justice Department was investigating Trump and Stone for a potential quid pro quo involving the commutation and Stone’s previous unwillingness to testify against the president.
“If Donald Trump lied to the Mueller investigators, which you agree would be a crime, then Roger Stone was in a position to expose Donald Trump’s lies,” Swalwell, a former prosecutor, surmised. “Are you familiar with the Dec. 3, 2018, tweet where Donald Trump said Roger Stone had shown guts by not testifying against him?”
“No, I am not familiar with that,” Barr said.
“You don’t read the president’s tweets?” Swalwell asked. “Well, there’s a lot of evidence in the president’s tweets, Mr. Attorney General. I think you should start reading them.”
The congressman would go on to question the attorney general as to why presented social media postings and public statements from Stone did not constitute probable cause for a federal investigation into the matter.
“We require a reliable predicate before we open a criminal investigation,” Barr said.
“And I just gave to you, sir–” Swalwell responded before being cut off by the attorney general.
“I don’t consider it,” Barr said. “I consider it a very Rube Goldberg theory that you have.”
“And by the way, if I applied your standard, there would be a lot more people under investigation,” he added, looking intently at various members of the committee.
3. “You’re a real class act, Mr. Chairman”
As the hearing dragged on into its third hour Tuesday, Barr set off another unexpectedly tense standoff — this time with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler over requests for a short break in the proceedings
“I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman, could I– could we take a five-minute break,” Barr asked Nadler in a down moment while the line of questioning was transferred from one committee member to the next.
Nadler rejected the request, quickly cut off by ranking Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who reminded the chairman that unscheduled breaks are often a “common courtesy” extended to congressional witnesses.
“I waited 45– an hour for you this morning,” Barr said. “I haven’t had lunch. I’d like to take a five-minute break.”
Promising the hearing would soon come to its conclusion, Nadler rejected the request a second time.
“Mr. Attorney General, we are almost finished,” Nadler said. “We are going to be finished in a few minutes. We can certainly take a break, but–“
“You’re a real class act, Mr. Chairman,” Barr responded sarcastically, “a real class act.”
Jordan then interjected once again to address the chairman, saying, “He wants a break now, and you just mentioned rudeness. I think we’re seeing it on display. Let’s let the attorney general have a break.”
Nadler then relented, granting Barr’s request for recess.
4. “This is a hearing”
In an afternoon punctuated by partisan grandstanding and frequent interruption of the attorney general, Barr also turned heads with an offhand request that he “be heard” at his own congressional hearing.
The interaction came as Barr fielded questions from Democratic Rep. Lou Correa of California regarding the Justice Department’s role in Trump’s hard-fought push to see the issue of citizenship and illegal immigration addressed on the United States census.
“Let’s talk a little bit about the census,” Correa said. “Every 10 years, we decide how many congressional sears each state gets, how much funding for schools, health care, other issues each region gets. Let’s talk about the president’s memo directing the commerce secretary to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count of the 2020 census.”
“Are undocumented people not whole individuals?” Correa asked, pushing Barr on the Justice Department’s position as to whether illegal immigrants fall under the category of U.S. “inhabitants” to be counted by the Census Bureau for the purposes of nationwide congressional apportionment and re-districting.
“They are obviously people,” Barr said. “The legal issue there was the terminology of the Constitution.”
“What the department advised — this came up because Alabama claims you cannot count illegal aliens in the Census under the Constitution — the department looked at it and advised that Congress can determine the meaning of ‘inhabitant’ for this purpose, that it is not a self-defining term,” Barr said.
Attempting to squeeze in another question before his time expired, Correa spoke over the attorney general, saying, “We’ve only got two minutes, sir. Mr. Barr, if I may–“
“Yeah, but this is a hearing,” Barr said.
“I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard.”
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