Attorney General William Barr is defending the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America, saying “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Barr will tell members of the House Judiciary Committee at a much-anticipated hearing on Tuesday that the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from the death of Floyd, which he described as a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement.
“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” Barr will say of the Portland protests, according to a copy of his prepared remarks released by the Justice Department on Monday.
The hearing was to begin at 10 a.m. but was delayed about an hour because the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, was involved in a minor car accident on the drive down from New York, his office said. He was not injured.
Barr will also touch on other controversies that have shadowed his tenure, including his handling of the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, which he derisively refers to as “the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal.”
The testimony underscores the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and the death of Floyd, which has already led to state charges against four officers and is under investigation by federal authorities. Massive but peaceful demonstrations ollowed Floyd’s death in May.
The attorney general, speaking as Congress and the public pay respects to the late Rep. John Lewis, will acknowledge to lawmakers that Floyd’s death struck a chord in the Black community because it reinforced concerns that Blacks are treated differently by police. But he will also condemn Americans who he says have responded inappropriately to Floyd’s death through what he said was rioting and anarchy.
“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 destruction of federal property,” Barr says. “So should state and local leaders who have a responsibility to keep their communities safe. To tacitly condone destruction and anarchy is to abandon the basic rule-of-law principles that should unite us even in a politically divisive time.”
Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause; they were detained and later released. And in Washington, D.C., peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the streets by federal officers using smoke bombs and pepper balls ahead of a photo op by Trump in front of a church, where Barr had accompanied him.
The attorney general has defended as necessary the broad use of law enforcement power to deal with the situation, but the department’s internal watchdog has opened investigations into use of force and other tactics by agents in both cities.
The hearing on Tuesday marks Barr’s first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, bringing him face-to-face with a panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats allege is politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. It comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Barr has taken a series of actions cheered by President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics.
Barr makes reference in his prepared statement to that antagonistic relationship, saying that “many of the Democrats on this Committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions. Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”
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