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A.G. Barr Faces Grilling from House Judiciary Democrats; Attorney General Barr Testifies Before House Lawmakers. Aired 11:30a- 12p ET.

Aired July 28, 2020 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): Well, I hope that Mr. Jordan will never complain about the length of my opening statement.

Without objection, I am going to insert the committee's audiovisual policy into the record of this hearing and note the minority did not give the committee the 48-hour notice required by that policy. Without objection, all other opening statements will be included in the record. I will now introduce today's witnesses.

William Barr has served as the attorney general of the United States since February 14, 2019, having previously served in the same position from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

He also served as deputy attorney general and assistant attorney general of the Office of Legal Counsel under the Bush administration, was a member of the Domestic Policy staff under President Reagan, served in the Central Intelligence Agency and was a law clerk for Judge Malcolm Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In addition to his significant public service, he also has extensive experience practicing law in the private sector.

Attorney General Barr received his A.B. and M.A. from Columbia University and a J.D. from George Washington University School of Law. We welcome the attorney general, and we thank him for participating today.

Now, if you would please rise, I will begin by swearing you in. If you raise your right hand, please, or left hand.

[11:35:00]

Do you swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the testimony you are about to give is true and correct to the best of your knowledge, information and belief, so help you God?

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I do.

NADLER: Let the record show the witness has answered in the affirmative. Thank you, and please be seated.

Please note that your written statement will be entered into the record in its entirety. Accordingly, I ask that you summarize your testimony in five minutes. To help you stay within that time, there is a timing light on your table. When the light switches from green to yellow, you have one minute to conclude your testimony. When the light turns red, it signals your five minutes have expired.

Mr. Barr, you may begin.

BARR: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Jordan. I'm pleased to be here this morning.

On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to pay my respects to your colleague, Congressman John Lewis, an indomitable champion of civil rights and the rule of law. I think it is especially important to remember today that he pursued his cause passionately and successfully with unwavering commitment to nonviolence.

As I said in my confirmation hearing, the attorney general has a unique obligation. He holds in trust the fair and impartial administration of justice.

He must ensure that there is one standard of justice that applies to everyone equally, and that criminal cases are handled evenhandedly based on the law and the facts, and with -- out -- without regard to political or personal considerations, and I can tell you that I've handled criminal matters that have come to me for decision in this way.

The president has not attempted to interfere in these decisions; on the contrary, he has told me from the start that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment to make whatever call I think is right, and that is precisely what I've done.

Indeed, it's precisely because I feel complete freedom to do what I think is right that induced me to serve once again as attorney general. As you just said, Mr. Chairman, I served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, and after that, I spent many years in the corporate world. I'm almost 70 years old.

I was almost 70 years old and slipping happily into retirement. I had nothing to prove, and I had no desire to return to government. I had no prior relationship with President Trump. Let me turn briefly to the several pressing issues of the day.

The horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on long-standing issues in the nation. Those issues obviously relate to the relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community. Given our history, it's understandable that among black Americans there should be some ambivalence and often distrust toward the police. Until just last 50 years ago or so, our laws were -- and our institutions were explicitly racist, explicitly discriminatory.

It was not until the '60s that the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeded in tearing down the Jim Crow edifice. Our laws finally came to formally embody the guarantee of equal protection, and since then, the work of securing civil rights has rightly focused on reforming institutions to ensure they better conform to our laws and to our aspirations.

That work, it's important to acknowledge, has been increasingly successful. Police forces today are far more diverse than they've ever been, and there are both more black police chiefs and more black officers in the ranks.

Although the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police was a shocking event, the fact is these events are fortunately quite rare. According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, the number of unarmed black man killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same period of time is 11, and the overall numbers of police shootings have been decreasing.

Nevertheless, every instance of excessive force is unacceptable and must be addressed appropriately through legal process, as is happening now in Minneapolis.

But apart from the numbers, I think these events strike a deep chord in the black community because they are perceived as manifestations of a deeper lingering concern that in encounters with police, blacks will not be treated evenhandedly. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. They will be treated with greater suspicion.

Senator Tim Scott has recounted the numerous times he's been unjustifiably pulled over on Capitol Hill. And as one prominent black professional in Washington said to me, "African-Americans often feel treated as suspects first and citizens second."

[11:40:00]

And I think these concerns are legitimate. At the same time I think it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep seeded racism generally infecting our police departments. It seems far more likely that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors which can be addressed with focused attention over time.

And we in law enforcement must be conscious of the concerns and ensure that we do not have two systems of justice. Unfortunately, some have chose to respond to George Floyd's death in a far less productive way by demonizing the police, promoting slogans like All Cops are Bastard and making grossly irresponsible proposals to defund the police.

The demonization of the police is not only unfair and inconsistent with principles of all people should be treated as individuals but gravely injurious to the inner-city communities.

When communities turn on and pillory the police officers naturally become more risk adverse and crime rates sore. Unfortunately, we are seeing that now in many of our cities. The threat to black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct.

The leading cause of death for young black males is homicide. Every year approximately 7,500 black Americans are victims of homicide, the vast majority of them, around 90 percent, are killed by other blacks mainly by gunfire.

Each of those lives matter. It is for this reason that in selected cities where there has been an upsurge in violent crime we are stepping up and bolstering the activities of our joint anti-crime task forces.

Finally I want to address a different breakdown in the rule of law that we've witnessed over the past two months. In the wake of George Floyd's death violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims. The current situation in Portland is a telling example.

Every night for the past two months a mob of hundreds of rioters have laid siege to the federal courthouse and other nearby federal property. The rioters have come equipped for fight. Armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles and explosive devices.

Inside the courthouse a relative small number of federal law enforcement personnel charged with defense -- the defense of mission to protect the courthouse. What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called protest. It is by any objective measure an assault on the government of the United States.

As elected officials of the Federal Government, every member of this committee, regardless of your political views or your feelings about the Trump Administration should condemn violence against federal officers and the destruction of federal property.

Thank you Mr. Chairman and I appreciate your listing for me the areas of concern in your opening statement and I'm looking forward to addressing them all.

NADLER: Thank you -- thank you for your testimony. We will now proceed under the five minute rule with questions. Now I'll recognize myself for five minutes. On July 22 you joined the president as he announced the expansion of Operation Legend, an initiative -- let me start that again.

On July 22 you joined the president as he announced the expansion of Operation Legend, an initiative to combat violent crime in Kansas City with approximately $61 million in DOJ grants.

I am confused, however, as to the purpose of launching Operation Legend at this moment in time. In December of last year you announced that the Department would divert over $70 million in grants to seven U.S. cities under an imitative called Operation Relentless Pursuit, correct?

BARR: That's right.

NADLER: And Operation Relentless Pursuit targeted a familiar list of cities, places like Albuquerque, Baltimore and Kansas City, correct?

BARR: Correct.

NADLER: At the same July 22 press conference you initially claimed that over 200 arrests have been -- had been made under Operation Legend, correct?

BARR: Correct.

NADLER: At that -- but you misspoke?

BARR: Correct.

NADLER: The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri later confirmed that only a single arrest had been made under the auspices of Operation Legend, correct?

BARR: I don't know.

NADLER: And the other -- and the 199 other arrests were made under Relentless Pursuit or other programs. Well, that was correct.

[11:45:00]

I think you could be forgiven for being confused. Operation Legend appears to be a little more than a repackaging of existing operations in these cities. So why all the drama? Why join the president at the White House to announce a bold new operation that appears to be neither bold nor new?

Understandably Americans are very suspicious of your motives here. There are those who believe you are sending federal law enforcement into these cities not to combat violent crime, but to help with the president's reelection efforts.

The president's made clear that he wants -- that he wants conflict between protesters and police to be essential claim -- an essential theme of his campaign. So, let me ask you directly Mr. Barr, yes or no -- yes or no, did you rebrand existing projects under the (inaudible) in order to assist the president in an election year?

BARR: I wouldn't call it--

NADLER: Mr. -- Mr. Attorney General, would you agree with me at least on principle that it is improper for the Department of Justice to divert resources and law enforcement personnel in an effort to assist the president's reelection campaign?

BARR: No, Mr. Chairman, in the fall we did inaugurate an anti-crime initiatives because we were concerned about increasing violent crime in a number of cities. And we call that Relentless Pursuit.

Unfortunately COVID intervened and our agents who were detailed for these assignments could not perform the operation. So the operation was squelched by COVID.

So, we couldn't complete or make much progress on Relentless Pursuit. However, in the intervening time we saw violent crime continuing to rise and a lot of that was triggered by the events after the death of George Floyd.

So, we did reboot the program after COVID started breaking and our -- we could commit the law enforcement resources to actually accomplish the mission, which is to reduce violent crime.

Now, I regret that COVID interrupted our law enforcement activities, but it doesn't obviate the fact that there are serious violent crime in these cities. These police (inaudible) and mayors from -- have been asking us for help and we have put in additional federal agents and investigators to help deal with it.

NADLER: Have you -- now yes or no, have you discussed the president's reelection campaign with the president or with any White House official or any surrogate of the president?

BARR: Well, I'm not going to get into my discussions with the president.

NADLER: Well, have you discussed that topic with him, yes or no?

BARR: Not in -- not in relation to this program.

NADLER: I didn't ask that. I asked if you discussed that--

BARR: I'm a member of the Cabinet and there's an election going on. Obviously the topic comes up.

NADLER: So, that answer is yes.

BARR: Well, the topic comes up in Cabinet meetings and other things. It shouldn't -- it shouldn't be a surprise that -- that the topic of election--

NADLER: I didn't say I was surprised, I just asked you if you'd done that. So, as part of those conversations with the president of his people about the reelection campaign, have you ever discussed the current or future deployment of federal law enforcement?

BARR: In -- in connection with what?

NADLER: In connection with what you just said. In connection with the -- with your discussions with the president or with other people around him of his reelection campaign, have you discussed the current or future deployment of federal law enforcement?

BARR: Well, as I say, I'm not going to get into my discussions with the president, but I've made it clear that I would like to pick the cities based on law enforcement and based on neutral criteria.

NADLER: So, but you can't tell me whether you've discussed--

BARR: No, I'm not going to discuss what I discussed with the president.

NADLER: Can you commit today that the Department will not use federal law enforcement as a prop in the president's reelection campaign?

BARR: We are not using federal--

NADLER: I just want to close with this thought. You really can't hide behind legal fictions this time Mr. Barr. It's all out in the open, where the people can see what you are doing for themselves.

The president wants footage for his campaign ads and you appear to be serving it up to him as ordered. In most of these cities the protests have begun to wind down before you marched in an confronted the protesters. And the protesters aren't (inaudible), the are mothers and veterans and mayors.

In this moment real leadership would entail de-escalation, collaboration in looking for ways to peaceably resolve our differences. Instead, you use pepper spray and truncheons on American citizens.

You did it here in Washington, you did it at 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.

BARR: Can I just say Mr--

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NADLER: Shame on you.

BARR: Can I just say--

NADLER: My time has expired. For what purpose does Mr. Jordan seek recognition?

(UNKNOWN): No, no, Mr. Johnson.

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NADLER: Mr. --

BARR: Could just for a moment (ph) --

NADLER: My time has expired. For what purpose does Mr. Johnson seek recognition?

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REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): Questions for the witness and I will yield the floor to him to respond.

BARR: Mr. Chairman, you've conflated two different things. The effort, like Legend, is to deal with violent crime, crime that's committing (ph) on the streets of the city -- again, predatory violence like murder, shootings, which are soaring in some cities right now.

That does not involve encountering protesters, as you refer to it. Civil disturbance is a different set of issues. And I just reject the idea that the department has flooded anywhere and attempted to suppress demonstrators. We make a clear distinction between demonstrators--

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NADLER: The facts speak for themselves--

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BARR: -- well, I'm -- this is my time, and I'm answering. And -- and, you know, the fact of the matter is, if you take Portland. Portland, the courthouse is under attack.

The federal resources are inside the perimeter around the courthouse, defending it from almost two months of daily attacks, where people march to the court, try to gain entrance and have set fires, thrown things, used explosives and injured police, including just this past weekend, perhaps permanently blinding three federal officers with lasers.

We are on the defense. It's -- we're not out looking for trouble. And if the state and the city would provide the law enforcement services that other jurisdictions do, we would have no need to have additional marshals in the courthouse.

M. JOHNSON: On behalf of hundreds of millions of Americans, thank you for that clarification and thank you for being here. And thank you for your service today, and your willingness to do this in very challenging times. Mr. Attorney General, we're very appreciative. It's not an easy job, it's a vitally important one.

I so appreciated what you said in your opening statement today, which is what you said in your confirmation hearing. "The attorney general has a unique obligation, he must -- he holds in trust the fair and impartial administration of justice." We appreciate that so much.

The Democrats have asserted here this morning -- and they continue to say in the media -- that under your leadership, the Justice Department has become highly politicized. Why is that a totally unfounded allegation?

BARR: Because actually, what I've been trying to do is restore the rule of law. And the rule of law is, in essence, that we have one rule for everybody. If you apply one rule to A, the same rule applies to B. And I felt we didn't have that previously at the department, we had strayed. And I would just ask people -- I'm supposedly punishing the president's enemies and helping his friends. What enemies have I indicted? Who -- could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited, that you feel violates the rule of law? One indictment.

Now, you say I helped the president's friends. The cases that are cited -- the Stone case and the Flynn case -- are both cases where I determined that some intervention was necessary to rectify the rule of law, to make sure people are treated the same.

I've said all -- Stone was prosecuted under me. And I said all along, I thought that was a righteous prosecution, I thought he should go to jail, and I thought the judge's sentence was correct.

But the line prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice anyone else in a similar position had ever served. And this is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender, no violence. And they were trying to put him in jail for seven to nine years, and I wasn't going to advocate that, because that is not the rule of law.

I agree, the president's friends don't deserve special breaks, but they also don't deserve to be treated more harshly than other people. And sometimes that's a difficult decision to make, especially when you know you're going to be castigated for it. But that is what the rule of law is, and that's what fairness to the individual ultimately comes to: being willing to do what's fair to the individual.

M. JOHNSON: Amen, and thank you for that.

And by contrast, what the previous DOJ did under the previous administration was politicize law enforcement. The Obama-Biden administration sabotaged the Trump transition, they illegally spied on the Trump campaign, they unmasked members of the Trump campaign, they employed aggressive tactics on their campaign officials.

Senior FBI officials we all know on this committee, carried over from the Obama administration, carried on their abuses into the Trump administration, and into the whole impeachment scam and all the rest.

Let me ask you just one question, because my time is running out. President Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, famously referred to himself as "President Obama's wingman." He said in an interview, quote, "I'm still enjoying what I'm doing, there's still work to be done. I'm still the president's wingman, so I'm there with my boy." That's what he said, famously.

Is it the duty of the attorney general to be the president's wingman?

[11:55:01]

BARR: No, I've already described what I think the duty of the attorney general is.

M. JOHNSON: And in your office, you are then free to act independently of the president, isn't that true? BARR: That is true, particularly on criminal cases, it's required.

M. JOHNSON: And that's exactly what he has asked you to do, isn't that right?

BARR: Yes, yes.

M. JOHNSON: I have no further--

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NADLER: The time of the--

M. JOHNSON: -- I yield back, thank you.

NADLER: It's well you have no further questions, your time is expired.

Ms. Lofgren?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D-CA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Attorney General, it's obvious what has happened here. From the video played during the (inaudible) remarks (ph), it's clear that the president's playbook is to divert attention from his catastrophic failure in dealing with the COVID-19 situation.

In Canada, our neighbor to the north; in Europe, the virus has been reduced to such a level that people can safely go out and not worry about being infected. But here in the United States, millions of Americans have been infected, tens of thousands are dying and the president needs to divert from that failure.

And (inaudible) the playbook? The playbook is to create the impression that there is violence that he must send in federal troops, and that the American people should be afraid of other Americans and trust the president because he's going to send (inaudible) troops to American cities, and that's how he hopes to win the election.

You know, it's one thing to fight crime, the joint (ph) task forces. That involves the cooperation of state and local officials. But the governor of Oregon and the mayor of Portland has asked that the federal troops leave because the reaction has actually been in -- in reverse proportion. People are showing up because the troops are there.

And I'd like to say that so many of them -- I would say most of them -- are nonviolent. We've all heard about the wall of moms, the wall of moms who show up to make sure that people are safe.

And here's what they say. They say they've been tear-gassed, night after night, left vomiting, that they've been shot at with rubber (ph) (inaudible) bean bags, pepper spray. So this mentality (ph) has created even more demonstrators.

I'd just like to ask you this. When the president issued (ph) his executive order, they indicated your department should prioritize investigations. Has your department started any investigations pursuant (ph) to the executive order that the president issued?

BARR: Which executive order, Congresswoman?

LOFGREN: The executive order that asked for the deployment of troops to protect the monuments and the federal facilities.

BARR: Yes, the--

LOFGREN: On June 26th?

BARR: Yeah. I wouldn't say it was troops, but the -- the -- we have initiated investigations, yes. We've made arrests of people, who--

LOFGREN: Let me ask--

BARR: -- people who have been rioting and taken down statues. But I think you're miss -- your characterization of Portland is completely false. We (ph)--

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LOFGREN: I would like to -- I would like to -- we can get into that, but I'd like to ask you a question about surveillance if I may. We've had reports that cell site stimulators known as StingRays or dirtboxes are being used to collect phone call, location, and even content of phone calls.

Drones are being used, and they have face recognition or cell phone interception (ph) technology and that there is bulk collection of internet browsing histories. What specific authority is the department using for these surveillance tools?

BARR: I really can't speak to -- to those instances, if they've in fact occurred. I'm glad to go and try to determine what you're talking about.

LOFGREN: Actually, I'm asking you about authority, not the details.

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BARR: Well, the -- you know, the -- I think most of our cyber- activities are conducted by the FBI under their law enforcement powers to detect and prevent crime, federal crime.

LOFGREN: I think the American public should know that this surveillance technique is just about (ph) the people in -- you know, in front of the courthouse.

If a husband and wife call each other and one of the spouses has a cell phone that's within range of one of these technologies, not only the location, but the actual content of that couple's conversation can be scooped up using this technology (ph).