Barr’s Loyalty to Trump Will Be Democrats’ Focus at Hearing

For more than a year, Attorney General William Barr has presided over some of the most consequential decisions of the Trump administration -- from prosecutorial moves in cases against the president’s associates to pushing back on swelling national protests -- without ever having to face House Democrats.

That all changes on Tuesday.

Barr will walk into a virtual firing chamber when he sits down for hours of testimony in front of a Democratic-led committee that may not even have enough time to grill him on all the issues they want to address. Looming over the hearing will be Democrats’ conviction that Barr has abandoned the Justice Department’s political independence to back a president who demands nothing but strict loyalty.

“The sickness that we must address is Mr. Barr’s use of the Department of Justice as a weapon to serve the president’s petty, private interests,” committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in June in comments that previewed the tone of Tuesday’s hearing.

Democrats are expected to pounce on issues such as how Barr has handled the prosecution of President Donald Trump’s allies, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as well as his recent abrupt decision to fire the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and his role in using federal forces to suppress protests against racism and police abuse.

They’ll want to know why Barr in February ordered prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for a longtime Trump associate, Roger Stone. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and tampering with a witness in connection with serving as a conduit between Trump and WikiLeaks during the 2016 election.

Four career prosecutors working on the Stone case withdrew following Barr’s order. Stone was eventually given a 40-month prison term, but Trump commuted the sentence this month.

Democrats will want to know what Barr thinks about that commutation. During his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2019, Barr said it would be a crime for a president to pardon someone in exchange for not incriminating that president.

Then there’s Barr’s decision to drop the federal prosecution of Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Barr said there was no justification for agents to question Flynn. A federal judge overseeing the case has since challenged Barr’s decision to drop it.

More broadly, Barr characterized the entire FBI and special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election as “flimsy,” “baseless” and a “complete sham,” marred by “inexplicable behavior” and “gross abuse.”

In a counter-punch that’s helped rally the president’s base, Trump and his allies have repeatedly said, with little evidence, that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spied on his 2016 campaign, discounting the findings and convictions obtained by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which concluded last year.

“In the past several months, we have learned shocking details about how the Obama-Biden administration used its Justice Department and intelligence community to target the Trump campaign,” Representative Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, wrote in a letter to Nadler last month.

Barr’s more recent move to fire the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, raised questions about political interference because Berman’s office has active investigations into Trump, his companies and people close to him. That includes the prosecution of Trump’s former personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, and a probe involving his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to secure political dirt in Ukraine on Biden.

Barr has also been criticized for his role in orchestrating the federal response to continuing protests against police abuse and racism, which has included sending federal police onto the streets of U.S. cities to confront largely peaceful protesters.

The attorney general played a key role in forcefully removing protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House on June 1. Along with Department of Homeland Security personnel, Barr’s forces have been involved in pitched battles with protesters in Portland, Oregon, over the objections of state and local officials.

Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to press Barr for details about a criminal investigation he ordered into whether FBI or intelligence officials illegally spied on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and his associates: an investigation, led by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, whose results may be released before election day.

“I know we’re looking to hear something about the Durham investigation,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close ally of Trump. “Hopefully, there will be something to report. I suspect there will be.”

In general, Republicans will be looking to bolster a key Trump adviser who embraced a muscular presidency and a tough law-and-order approach to social unrest since long before the current president got involved in politics. Barr, 70, is serving his second term as America’s top law enforcement official, following a stint as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration in the early 1990s.

Lawmakers from both parties are also likely to question Barr about election interference and hacking by China and Russia, including efforts to steal coronavirus research from U.S. companies and institutions.

But for Democrats, the wave of controversial decisions Barr has made in recent months will be at the top of their agenda. And they may have the Justice Department’s watchdog on their side for some of their queries.

The department’s inspector general announced on July 23 it’s opened an investigation into the department’s response to protests in Washington, D.C. and Portland, including legal authorities and whether agents failed to properly identify themselves.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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