US attorney general William Barr has defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America.
Mr Barr told members of the House Judiciary Committee at a much-anticipated election year hearing that “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Mr Barr said the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Mr Floyd’s killing, which he called a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the black community and law enforcement.
“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” Mr Barr said of the Portland protests.
The hearing marks Mr Barr’s first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, bringing him face-to-face with a panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats allege is politicisation of the Justice Department under his watch.
It comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Mr Barr has taken actions cheered by US President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics.
Opening the hearing, committee chairman Jerry Nadler said the Trump administration had “twisted the Department of Justice into a shadow of its former self”, serving the powerful before average Americans. He said the committee has a responsibility to protect Americans “from that kind of corruption”.
Mr Nadler said Mr Barr had “aided and abetted” Mr Trump’s worst impulses.
“Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favours for the president,” Mr Nadler said.
Mr Nadler also excoriated Mr Barr and the Justice Department for turning a blind eye to necessary reforms to police departments, for dismissing Black Lives Matter protests and for flooding streets with federal agents to stop protesters.
Republicans hit back hard in defence of Mr Barr and Mr Trump’s administration. The top Republican on the panel Jim Jordan, showed an eight-minute video that spliced together images of violence by protesters around the country, showcasing law enforcement officers under attack in Chicago, Portland and New York. The images were cut from hundreds of hours of racial injustice footage of largely peaceful protests around the nation.
Mr Barr, in a prepared statement, defends the department in other controversies that have shadowed his tenure, including his handling of the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, which he derisively refers to as “the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal”. Mr Barr did not read that part of his statement in the hearing room, but it was in remarks sent out by the department.
Mr Barr said: “Many of the Democrats on this Committee have attempted 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. Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”
The testimony underscores the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and Mr Floyd’s death, which has led to state charges against four officers and is under investigation by federal authorities. Massive but peaceful demonstrations followed Mr Floyd’s death in May.
The attorney general, speaking as Congress and the public pay respects to the late representative and civil rights hero John Lewis, acknowledged Mr Floyd’s death struck a chord in the black community because it reinforced concerns black people are treated differently by police. But he condemned Americans who he says have responded inappropriately to Mr Floyd’s death through what he said was rioting and anarchy.
He said: “As elected officials of the federal government, every member of this committee – regardless of your political views or your feelings about the Trump administration – should condemn violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property.
“So should state and local leaders who have a responsibility to keep their communities safe. 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.”