It stood to reason that Congress might, at some point, ask someone from the Trump administration to answer for the recent push to invade American cities with armed federal troops. On Tuesday, that person was Attorney General William Barr, who appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answers questions about the Justice Department’s move to, as Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) put it, “actively seek out contact” with American citizens demonstrating for their civil rights.
Since assuming the top spot in the Justice Department in February 2019, Barr essentially has served as an extremely powerful henchman for President Trump, most notably in his efforts to obscure the findings of the Mueller investigation, which the attorney general described on Tuesday as “bogus.” As Nadler put it in his opening remarks, Barr is at “war with the department’s professional corps in an apparent effort to secure favors for the president.”
Barr played the part well in his opening statement, parroting the president’s language in defending the surge of federal troops into American cities, most notably Portland, Oregon, decrying the “violent rioters and anarchists” who “wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims.” He went on to read off a list of instruments — sledgehammers, explosives, “powerful slingshots,” and more — used by protesters to terrorize the federal courthouse in Portland, noting that it was “by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.” (As has been pointed out on Twitter, Barr may have been embellishing the kinds of weapons demonstrators were wielding by including tasers and rifles on the list.)
But Barr failed to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of those who have shown up to demonstrate in Portland and other cities have done so peacefully, or the excessive use of force by federal agents against these peaceful demonstrators. Nadler didn’t condone attacks against federal buildings, but questioned why Barr is using troops to escalate a tension that had been subsiding before federal agents were sent in to tear gas mothers and veterans.
The answer to this question is pretty obvious.
“Would you agree with me on principle,” Nadler asked Barr, “that it is improper for the Department of Justice to divert resources and law enforcement personnel in an effort to assist the president’s re-election campaign?”
Barr stammered a little before arguing that this effort began in the fall as Operation Relentless Pursuit, as a campaign to quell violent crime, but was put on hold because of the coronavirus. Now it has resumed. The fact that it did so, and did so dramatically, as Trump’s re-election chances are tanking and as the campaign centers itself around the conflict — through innumerable videos, tweets, and emailed warnings of the impending destruction of America by radicalized domestic terrorists — is, Barr wants us to believe, purely coincidental.
Nadler asked if Barr had discussed the re-election campaign with the president. Of course he had. “I’m a member of the Cabinet and there’s an election going on,” he said. “Obviously the topic comes up.” Had he discussed the “current or future deployment of federal law enforcement” within the context of Trump’s re-election campaign? “I’m not going to get into my discussions with the president,” he said.
Nadler only had five minutes to question Barr before giving the floor to Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.). He used the remainder of his time to make a point.
“In this moment, real leadership would entail de-escalation, collaboration, and looking for ways to peaceably resolve our differences,” Nadler said. “Instead, you used pepper spray and truncheons on American citizens. You did it here in Washington, you did it in Lafayette Square, you expanded to Portland, and now you are projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives. Shame on you, Mr. Barr.”