William Barr, the US attorney-general, defended the actions of the Trump administration in Portland, Oregon, on Tuesday as he made his first appearance before the Democratic-controlled House judiciary committee.
Mr Barr, who has been among Donald Trump’s most effective appointees, denounced the nightly demonstrations at the federal courthouse in Portland as driven by “violent rioters and anarchists”.
“Since when is it OK to try and burn down a federal court?” he told the committee. He insisted federal forces deployed to the northwest US city were simply “defending the courthouse. We’re not out looking for trouble.”
For weeks in downtown Portland, federal forces have used tear gas and rubber bullets around the federal courthouse to disperse demonstrators, some of whom have used fireworks and high-powered lasers.
Democrats on Tuesday accused Mr Barr and the Trump administration of stoking the clashes to help the US president run his re-election campaign as a “law and order” candidate.
“The president wants footage for his campaign ads and you appear to be serving it up to him,” Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s chairman, told Mr Barr. “You are projecting fear and violence nationwide.”
The often combative hearing marked the first time Mr Barr has faced questions from the House judiciary committee. He has been at the centre of several controversies this year, including his interventions in criminal cases involving allies of Mr Trump and his role in the removal of protesters outside the White House last month.
The attorney-general and Democrats clashed repeatedly throughout the hearing, with Mr Barr raising his voice on several occasions as he resisted their repeated efforts to cut short his answers.
Late in the day, he called Mr Nadler “a class act” after the chairman initially refused his request for a five-minute break. In sparring with another Democrat, Ted Deutch of Florida, Mr Barr said sarcastically: “I think I speak English.”
The attorney-general defended his stewardship of the justice department, stating that he was not taking orders from Mr Trump on any criminal matters, and that he had not bent the rule of law to suit the president’s interests.
“I’m supposedly punishing the president’s enemies and helping his friends. What enemies have I indicted? Could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited?” he demanded.
Mr Barr defended his actions in the cases of Roger Stone, the Trump ally in whose case he ordered a lower sentencing recommendation than wanted by the prosecutors who secured Mr Stone’s conviction, and of Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s former national security adviser whose case he ordered dismissed.
“I agree the president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people,” the attorney-general said.
The hearing saw Republicans on the committee play a video that contrasted media reports of “peaceful protesters” in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd with images of looting and buildings burning. In his testimony, Mr Barr criticised calls by activists since Floyd’s killing to “defund the police” and divert spending to welfare programmes.
“The threat to black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct,” Mr Barr argued.
The attorney-general also faced questions about the events at Lafayette Square in Washington last month, where protesters near the White House were forcibly dispersed shortly before Mr Trump walked through the area for a photo opportunity outside a church.
A US national guardsman testified separately on Tuesday that the Trump administration had used “excessive” force against peaceful protesters in that incident on the evening of June 1.
Mr Barr said the operation was intended to expand the perimeter around the White House for security reasons and had been ordered earlier in the morning that day, before he was aware of Mr Trump’s photo plans.
He had visited Lafayette Square around 6pm that day, immediately before the protesters were removed, and told the Associated Press last month: “My attitude was get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it’.”
On Tuesday he told the judiciary committee he had become aware “some time in the afternoon” that Mr Trump “might come out of the White House”, and that “later in the afternoon I heard that he might go over to the church”.
“To say that this had to do with a photo op, I don’t mean to analogise this to a military operation, but it’s akin to saying that we invaded the Philippines in world war two so Douglas MacArthur could walk through the surf on the beach,” Mr Barr said.
“One follows the other, but we did not invade the Philippines so that MacArthur could walk to the beach.”