Attorney General William Barr testified before Congress on Tuesday that "violent rioters and anarchists" have "hijacked" the protests over George Floyd's death "to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims."
In prepared remarks, Barr also offered a full-throated defense of his much-criticized conduct in the federal probe of Russian election interference, slamming the "bogus 'Russiagate' scandal" and asserting President Donald Trump has not acted inappropriately.
Barr delivered an abridged version of that statement before the House Judiciary Committee, where he faced a hostile audience in the panel's Democratic majority.
"Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the department's professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the president," Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in his own opening remarks. "In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of this president."
The hearing comes more than a month after Nadler threatened to subpoena Barr to testify after the firing of Geoffrey Berman as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In June, Barr announced that Berman was "stepping down." Berman's office at the time was reportedly engaged in an investigation into Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Berman initially refused to leave, saying he would only do so when his replacement was confirmed by the Senate. Barr then told Berman in a letter that Trump had fired him.
Barr's spokeswoman announced on June 24 that the attorney general had accepted an invitation for a "general oversight hearing." The hearing marks Barr's first-ever appearance before the House Judiciary panel during his tenure in the Trump administration and his first session before Congress in more than a year.
The hearing was originally set for 10 a.m. ET, but was delayed until around 11 a.m. following a "minor accident," a spokesman for the committee told CNBC. Nadler added at the hearing that he was involved in a "minor car accident."
Rep. Jim Jordan, the committee's top Republican, launched into his opening statement by decrying the Russia probe as a coordinated effort by Democrats to undermine Trump.
"Spying. That one word, that's why they're after you," Jordan said to Barr.
The ranking Republican then showed a lengthy video comprising dozens of clips of violence and property destruction apparently carried out during the recent spate of riots.
Nadler in his opening line of questions grilled Barr on whether he had discussed Trump's reelection efforts with the president or his surrogates.
"I'm not going to get into my discussions with the president," Barr initially said.
Pressed to give a yes or no response, Barr said he had not discussed the reelection campaign with regard to Operation Legend, a law enforcement program recently initiated to provide aid to local authorities.
"I didn't ask that," Nadler said, to which Barr replied: "I'm a member of the Cabinet, and there's an election going on. Obviously the topic comes up."
"So the answer's yes?" Nadler asked.
"Well, the topic comes up in Cabinet meetings and other things," Barr said. "It shouldn't be a surprise that the topic of the election comes up."
The hearing intensified as Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., grilled Barr over his handling of the June 1 incident in which protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square following a Trump Rose Garden address.
Once the square across from the White House was cleared, Trump, along with other members of the administration – including Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the nation's highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley – participated in a photo-op in front of historic St. John's Church.
Cohen slammed Barr for orchestrating the clearance of the peaceful protesters, calling it "an affront to the Constitution and the American people."
"You said get it done, you said get it done," Cohen shouted at Barr, who was cut off before he could address the claim.
Cohen went on to address the escalating violence in Portland, Oregon, saying that Barr's "secret police were poorly trained."
"Just like your Bureau of Prisons guards, were poorly trained and allowed the most notorious inmate in our nation's last several years, Jeffrey Epstein, to conveniently commit suicide."
Barr denied that he was doing what Trump wanted when the Justice Department reduced its recommended sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime ally of Trump's who had been convicted on charges of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering.
"Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?" Barr asked in a fiery exchange with Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.
Prosecutors had recommended in February that a federal judge deliver that sentence for Stone, saying it mirrored federal guidelines. But Trump blasted the move, calling it "a horrible and very unfair situation."
A day after that sentencing memo was made public, the DOJ sent the judge a revised recommendation, saying Stone deserved "far less" time in prison than what the four prosecutors on the case had proposed. Those prosecutors then dramatically quit Stone's case.
The original recommended sentence "was within the guidelines," Barr said Tuesday, "but it was not within Justice Department policy in my view."
Barr told Johnson at the hearing he had not discussed his sentencing recommendation with "anyone at the White House or anyone outside the department."
Stone was ultimately sentenced to a 40-month prison term. But Trump in July commuted Stone's sentence just four days before the GOP operative was set to be incarcerated.
Barr's opening statement, published Monday evening by multiple outlets, did not directly address Berman's ouster. Rather, Barr accused Democrats on the panel of using the hearing to further their attempts "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."
He said Trump "has not attempted to interfere" in criminal matters under the attorney general's purview. "From my experience, the President has played a role properly and traditionally played by Presidents," he said.
Barr's statement focused in large part on Floyd, a Black man whose death while unarmed at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis sparked a massive wave of protests across the U.S.
Floyd's killing "understandably jarred the whole country and forced us to reflect on longstanding issues in our nation," Barr's statement said. "Given our history it is understandable that, among black Americans, there is at least some ambivalence, and often distrust, toward the police."
But events like Floyd's death are "fortunately quite rare" nowadays, Barr said. He warned that the "demonization" of police, and the "grossly irresponsible proposals" to defund them, are "gravely injurious to our inner city communities."
Barr defended the deployment of federal law enforcement officers to cities like Portland, Oregon, where clashes between police and demonstrators have become increasingly violent.
"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.
"To state what should be obvious, peaceful protesters do not throw explosives into federal courthouses, tear down plywood with crowbars, or launch fecal matter at federal officers. Such acts are in fact federal crimes under statutes enacted by this Congress."
Barr's statement urged all members of the House Judiciary Committee to "condemn violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property."
"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," he said.