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Attorney General Barr Defends His Decisions And DOJ Actions Before The House

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A fiery hearing on Capitol Hill today. Attorney General Bill Barr clashed with Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee over how he has run the Justice Department. For instance, Chairman Jerrold Nadler accused Barr of cracking down on protesters to help reelect the president.

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JERROLD NADLER: In your time in the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president.

CHANG: Well, joining us now to talk about the hearing is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: All right, so this was a long time coming. I mean, the attorney general had canceled or postponed two previous hearings in the House. So what were Democrats itching to ask Bill Barr today?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Ailsa, Democrats say the attorney general is supposed to be the lawyer for all the people. Instead, they say, in this case, Bill Barr has been focused on protecting and defending one person - President Trump. The Democrats say there's a pattern of Justice Department help for the president's friends, like political adviser Roger Stone. And here's Florida Democrat Ted Deutch asking about why the attorney general wanted to lower the punishment recommendation for Roger Stone.

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TED DEUTCH: Mr. Attorney General, can you think of any other cases where the defendant threatened to kill a witness, threatened to - threatened a judge, lied to a judge where the Department of Justice claimed that those were mere technicalities? Can you think of even one?

WILLIAM BARR: The judge agreed with our...

DEUTCH: Can you think of even one? I'm not asking about the judge. I'm asking about what you did.

CHANG: Well, how is the attorney general responding to these allegations?

JOHNSON: Bill Barr showed what felt like real anger today as he defended himself. He basically says decisions at Justice are made without political pressure from the White House, from Congress or from what he calls mobs. Bill Barr says if there were two standards of justice, that's what happened in 2016 under President Obama. Remember that Barr named a prosecutor to look into what he called grave abuses by the Obama administration in intelligence gathering and FBI activities in 2016. And we now know that prosecutor John Durham is working diligently. The attorney general today would not commit to releasing Durham's report or any charges until after the election, as Democrats asked. So it's still possible that we're going to see activity on that front before the election.

But, Ailsa, under questioning from Democrats, the attorney general did say Russia did interfere with U.S. elections four years ago, and he said we have to assume that Russia is trying all over again this year.

CHANG: Well, what about the protests? The federal government has sent agents to Portland and Seattle to try to keep the protests there under control. But officials in those cities are saying the presence of the feds is actually making things worse. Have we heard any more from the attorney general about that?

JOHNSON: Bill Barr gave very little ground all day in questioning on those subjects. He said what's happening outside the federal courthouse in Portland isn't a protest, but what he calls an assault on the government of the United States. He's mentioned how people were throwing fireworks into the building, how they barricaded the front door and how they took other dangerous actions just in the last several days.

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BARR: Federal courts are under attack. Since when is it OK to try to burn down a federal court? If someone went down the street to the Prettyman court here, that beautiful courthouse we have right at the bottom of the Hill, and started breaking windows and firing industrial-grade fireworks in to start a fire, throw kerosene balloons in and start fires in the court, is that OK? Is that OK now?

JOHNSON: So real frustration from the attorney general. I'd also point out the U.S. attorney in Portland said yesterday he charged 22 people with violence near that courthouse in Portland over the weekend last weekend.

CHANG: Well, those protests, of course, they began after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, after police in Louisville killed Breonna Taylor. And I understand that there were a number of questions today about race and law enforcement for Barr. How did he address those questions?

JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general says he doesn't think systemic racism is at work in police forces around the country. He does say the death of George Floyd was horrible, and he said he understands how it can strike a deep chord in the Black community, a feeling the system isn't fair to people of color. And Barr says he understands that, but he thinks it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism. Democrats didn't like that very much. They pointed out that just nearby there were people lined up around the corner to pay respects to the late Congressman John Lewis, who spent his entire life fighting for civil rights.

CHANG: That is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.