By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr faces tough questioning on Tuesday by a Democratic-controlled House of Representative committee whose members believe he abused his power to bolster President Donald Trump’s allies and silence his political enemies.
The hearing will mark Barr’s first testimony before the House Judiciary Committee since he took office in February 2019, and comes as the Justice Department faces criticism for its role in sending federal officers to forcibly disperse protesters in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.
The department’s internal watchdog launched probes last week into federal involvement in both those cases.
The United States has seen weeks of widespread, mostly peaceful protests against racial bias and police violence following George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police in May.
Barr has highlighted the arson and looting that have broken out at some protests, blaming them primarily on far-left “antifa” elements and urging federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges whenever possible. A Reuters review of federal cases in June found scant evidence that any of the defendants were linked to far-left movements.
Barr, in prepared remarks, will defend the use of federal law enforcement to quell the protests in Portland, where some protesters have thrown objects at the federal courthouse.
“What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States,” Barr said.
In his testimony, he also downplayed accusations about systemic discrimination in policing across the country, saying it would “be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism.”
“The threat to black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct,” he said.
Led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee launched a broad inquiry last month into whether the Justice Department had become overly politicized.
The inquiry came after Barr intervened in several high-profile criminal cases involving people close to Trump. In February, he moved to scale back the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, prompting four career prosecutors to withdraw.
One of those prosecutors – Aaron Zelinsky – told the committee in June that his supervisor told him Barr’s actions were politically motivated.
In May, Barr sought to drop the criminal charge against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, setting the stage for an ongoing legal battle with the federal judge who was due to sentence Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Barr, in his testimony, will insist that Trump “has not attempted to interfere in these decisions.”
In June, Barr ousted Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, while that office was investigating Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Berman later told the committee: “I do not know what the attorney general’s motives were, but the irregular and unexplained actions by the attorney general raised serious concerns for me.”
In July, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which reports to Barr, ordered Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen out of home confinement and back to prison after he hesitated to sign a sweeping gag order that would have prevented him from releasing a book about the president.
A judge ordered Cohen released last week, saying there was evidence the BOP had retaliated against him.
A Democratic committee attorney said on Monday that all of those topics may come up at the hearing.
“All of it leads to one central theme – this attorney general uses the Department of Justice to serve the president’s petty political interests – and that is dangerous,” the attorney told reporters on a conference call.