In May 2019, three months after he had taken office and a few weeks after releasing a misleading summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr was supposed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. He never showed up for that appearance. He refused to testify because he objected to being questioned by staff attorneys, even though there was a firm precedent for such questioning.
More than a year later, Barr got his way. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee finally was able to question him for the first time, but without the assistance of staff attorneys. Barr was evasive and confrontational. Without staff attorneys, though, Democratic questioners largely flailed in efforts to effectively confront Barr and get him on the record under oath about a series of apparent abuses of office.
Indeed, it quickly became very clear why Barr preferred not to face congressional staff questioners. Staff attorneys have been effective in past hearings, as they are generally practiced in cross-examinations and have done more direct research than members of Congress. Staff attorneys might have been able to ask Barr pointed and direct questions to get him on the record on, to name just a few abuses of his office, the handling of the Mueller report, the interference in the cases of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, and the order to violently clear a crowd of peaceful protesters moments prior to a presidential photo-op. Barr has a lot to answer for. Instead, Democratic committee members floundered in their questioning.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, which has proved to be one of the most incompetent oversight committees in the House, were quickly and easily able to divert the proceedings into farce. Following Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s unmemorable opening statement, ranking minority member Jim Jordan was allowed to go well over his allotted time to air what amounted to a lengthy Fox News segment. After accusing the Obama administration of framing Flynn in order to cover up its own crimes, Jordan played a nearly eight-minute video of contextless clips of violence at protests.
Jordan was allowed to play this video in contradiction to committee rules, and, again, it ran well longer than his allotted time. Nadler then spent much of his question time not actually asking Barr questions or getting responses from him, but again grandstanding with statements that Barr was “hiding behind legal fictions.” Former House Intelligence Committee staff attorney Daniel Goldman, who did effective staff questioning during the impeachment inquiry, went so far as to note on Twitter how poorly Nadler had done the job.
Throughout the day, when Democratic representatives questioned Barr about specific allegations of abuse of power, they either quickly stepped over their own lines of questioning or interrupted Barr. This tactic may have been effective in preventing Barr from filibustering, but it did nothing to get any answers whatsoever from him.
The most effective portions of the day, in fact, came when Black members of the Democratic caucus questioned Barr about excessive use of police force. First, when Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee pushed Barr on his views about police brutality, he rejected the idea that systemic discrimination in law enforcement even existed. “I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments generally, in this country,” Barr told her.
Jackson Lee noted that Black people in this country are disproportionately subjected to police use of force and are searched a vastly disproportionate amount throughout the country. Barr then refused to explain why his department had stopped investigating patterns and practices of discrimination in specific police departments, including the Minneapolis Police Department, whose officers killed George Floyd and which is now under investigation by Minnesota state officials.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Karen Bass—who is reportedly under consideration to be Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee—conducted a strong round of questioning in which Barr said he was unfamiliar with use-of-force tactics that resulted in the deaths of unarmed Black civilians.
Bass then clearly articulated how disproportionate policing and use of force in Black communities point to a systemic problem that Barr denies.
When further pressed by Rep. Cedric Richmond, the attorney general gave his opposing view, contradicted by facts, that “police are less likely to shoot at a Black suspect, a little bit more likely to shoot at white. However, police are more inclined to use nonlethal force in a contact with an African American suspect.”
A few other members were also able to effectively press Barr on his misleading public claims that mail-in voting is marred by fraud. Barr acknowledged he had no evidence for this claim, even as he stood by it, and also acknowledged that he had previously voted by mail personally himself. Critically, in response to questioning from Rep. Greg Stanton, Barr refused to say that he would not use his Department of Justice to bolster the Trump campaign in the event of a contested election. “I will follow the law,” Barr said, when he was asked, “yes or no,” if he would refuse to intervene on the president’s behalf to stop states from counting ballots if requested or if he would commit to ensuring the Department of Justice does not get involved in a contested election.
These valuable lines of inquiry forced Barr to say, under oath, that he does not believe structural racism in policing exists, that he may use the DOJ to bolster Trump’s campaign, and that he doesn’t have any evidence for his claim that mail-in voting is at risk of foreign interference.
Still, Democrats wasted a rare opportunity to get Barr on the record, under penalty of perjury, specifically explaining the mechanics of his many alleged abuses of power. When, for instance, precisely did he learn about Trump’s photo-op? When also did he order federal forces to clear Lafayette Square, whom did he give the order to, and what specifically did he tell them? The answers to these would put him on the record under oath with facts that could be contradicted by other sources if they were misleading. They would almost certainly undermine his sworn claim that it was a complete “coincidence” that the effort to clear the park happened to occur right before Trump’s photo-op. On this, and other specific questions regarding his firing of former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman and the pressure campaigns to protect Stone and Flynn, Democrats faltered. Barr apparently felt that it went so well that he gave a Republican congressman a wrist bump when it was all over.
Ultimately, perhaps Democrats evaded pressing Barr on the specifics of his many apparent abuses of power because they saw during the impeachment proceedings—when the administration refused every single congressional subpoena and declined to turn over a single document to the House—that there is no mechanism in the current Congress for getting any information out of this administration, or for any form of accountability. Instead, they’ve bet everything on Joe Biden winning the next election. If the former vice president fails to do that by a large enough margin, though, we now know that Barr is ready to step in to work on behalf of Trump’s personal and political interests at the expense of the country at least one more time.