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Barr Criticizes Prosecutors, Makes Incendiary Comments On Slavery And Pandemic

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Attorney General Bill Barr is not known for mincing words, but his remarks at a Constitution Day celebration last night are reverberating far beyond the walls of the Justice Department. Barr criticized his own prosecutors and made incendiary comments about slavery and the coronavirus pandemic. With us to talk about what the attorney general said is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

PFEIFFER: Let's start with Barr's comments on lockdowns over COVID-19. What did he say about that?

JOHNSON: A member of the largely conservative audience last night asked Barr about restrictions on attendance at religious ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic. The attorney general pointed out that his Justice Department has been sending letters to state and local governments about religious freedom. And then he started talking about proposals for a national stay-at-home order. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL BARR: Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.

JOHNSON: Now, the reaction to those comments was swift. The highest-ranking Black lawmaker in the House of Representatives, Jim Clyburn, called those comments by Barr among the most ridiculous, tone-deaf and awful things he's ever heard.

PFEIFFER: Another striking element of Barr's speech is that most of it seemed to focus on his own employees at the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. This was a very unusual case of an attorney general calling out career prosecutors as a permanent bureaucracy, one that Barr says is sometimes motivated by politics. He said too many prosecutors are looking for high-profile targets to go after. He called them headhunters. And then Bill Barr said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARR: And as I say to FBI agents, whose agent do you think you are? I don't say this in a pompous way, but that is the chain of authority and legitimacy in the Department of Justice.

JOHNSON: And, Sacha, by the way, this morning, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, told Congress that his agents work on behalf of the American people.

PFEIFFER: And this, of course, is not happening in a political vacuum. Critics have accused Bill Barr of interfering in cases to help allies of President Trump - people like presidential adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn. So, Carrie, in that larger context, how are these comments landing?

JOHNSON: You know, Bill Barr never mentioned the Stone or Flynn cases by name, but they definitely appeared to be on his mind. The attorney general says he's the ultimate decider at the Justice Department. He says prosecutors need supervision, and he likened some of his own workforce to little kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARR: Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency.

JOHNSON: Now, no surprise - this speech offended some former Justice Department employees. One of them is Jody Hunt, who tweeted his support last night for the career workforce. Hunt was an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department until he left that job earlier this year. And other prosecutors pointed out that even though Bill Barr has previous experience at the Justice Department, he actually has never prosecuted a case. He's done other things there.

PFEIFFER: Carrie, you've been on the justice beat for a long time, and so you know that there is often or always political controversies there. Is there anything about this moment with Bill Barr that stands out to you?

JOHNSON: You know, certainly, we've had some very controversial attorneys general - Ed Meese in the Reagan years, Eric Holder under President Obama and then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey under President George W. Bush. The difference this time is that Bill Barr seems to go out of his way to touch the third rail. He really seems to relish this combat with reporters in his own workforce. I'm not sure what the upside is for Barr to pick a fight with his employees right now, but maybe he just likes to get a rise out of people. He certainly has succeeded at that, Sacha. This afternoon, his spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, has pointed out that some of his speech may have been misrepresented, and she urged people to read his words for themselves.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department.

Carrie, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.