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Barr Holds His Ground As Democrats Question Him On Controversies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Attorney General William Barr finally took questions before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. Democrats confronted the attorney general about his personal intervention in cases of interest to the president. They questioned the way federal agents have handled protests in Portland, Ore., among other places, although Barr gave no ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: 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.

INSKEEP: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was listening and joins us. Good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What else did Barr have to say about these protests?

JOHNSON: Oh, Steve, there's so much to cover. Remember that these protests began after the police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. Democrats on the panel said the vast majority of protesters are peaceful, even in Portland. But the attorney general focused on the violence, the attacks on the federal court building there. He says deputy U.S. marshals have been injured and they're tired. And he says he'd be happy if the state and local law enforcement did more so the feds could do less, while Democrats decided to show Bill Barr the video of a Navy veteran in Portland being beaten and tear-gassed. But the attorney general said most people near the court have been violent and that tear gas might have been in the air already.

INSKEEP: Might have been in the air already - OK. This is, of course, just one thing that they discussed. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Democrat of New York, argued that the attorney general has been rewarding the president's friends and punishing the president's enemies. A couple of names easily come to mind - Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. The Justice Department went to drop the case against him. The president's political adviser Roger Stone - Barr himself argued for a lighter sentence for Stone. Let's listen to some of the questioning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERROLD NADLER: In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president.

INSKEEP: OK. That's an accusation, actually, by Nadler. How did Barr respond?

JOHNSON: The attorney general says the president has never asked him, directed him or pressured him to do anything in a criminal case. Barr says he acts independent of the White House and what he calls the mob of public opinion. Now, a couple of lawmakers asked him if he could come up with an example of a time when he weighed in on the punishment for a defendant who was not a friend of the president, referring to Roger Stone here. And the attorney general responded this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARR: 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...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute.

JOHNSON: In this hearing (ph)...

INSKEEP: So he's not actually - if I can - he's not actually answering the question about whether he intervened on behalf of someone who is not the president's friend. He's kind of shifting the goalpost there, right?

JOHNSON: He was asked that question twice yesterday. He never quite answered it. And in fact, it became very contentious with lawmakers from the Democratic side of the aisle interrupting Bill Barr and, by the end, Bill Barr interrupting some of the Democrats, too.

INSKEEP: What did the attorney general have to say about the security of the election this fall?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it came up because Bill Barr once again raised questions about the security of mail-in ballots. And when Democratic lawmakers asked him to provide evidence for those concerns, he said he didn't have any other than his common sense. Voting experts don't think that that is going to be a big concern even though President Trump and Attorney General Barr have been out there making those claims in news reports and public comments now for weeks, if not months.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

JOHNSON: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.