Five takeaways from Bill Barr’s strident and fraudulent opening salvo to Congress
AG William Barr testifies before Congress. (Image via AFP/Nicholas Kamm.)

Attorney General Bill Barr is finally testifying before the House of Representatives after delaying for more than a year, and he’s opening with a bang.

Ahead of his Tuesday hearing, Politico published a copy of his opening statement. It’s mendacious, hypocritical, aggressive, and inflammatory. He’s not going to Congress to make friends or mollify his critics. He’s going to spit fire.

Here are 5 key takeaways from his testimony:

1. Despite being one of the most openly partisan attorneys general in recent history, Barr pledges to keep the Justice Department non-partisan.

We are in a time when the political discourse in Washington often reflects the politically divided nation in which we live, and too often drives that divide even deeper. Political rhetoric is inherent in our democratic system, and politics is to be expected by politicians, especially in an election year. While that may be appropriate here on Capitol Hill or on cable news, it is not acceptable at the Department of Justice. At the Department, decisions must be made with no regard to political pressure—pressure from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, or from the media or mobs.

2. In the paragraph after pledging to avoid political rhetoric, he launches a strident attack on the Russia investigation and Democrats.

Ever since I made it clear that I was going to do everything I could to get to the bottom of the grave abuses involved in the bogus “Russiagate” scandal, 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.

It’s hard to imagine how one can write these two paragraphs in succession and not see the glaring irony, but apparently Barr is so steeped in his own warped view of the world that he can’t imagine — or just doesn’t care — how his words will seem to outsiders.

3. He brazenly lies and says the president plays an appropriate role in Justice Department matters.

From my experience, the President has played a role properly and traditionally played by Presidents. Like his predecessors, President Trump and his National Security Council have appropriately weighed in on law-enforcement decisions that directly implicate national security or foreign policy, because those decisions necessarily involve considerations that transcend typical prosecutorial factors. Moreover, when some noteworthy event occurs that potentially has legal ramifications – such as leaks of classified information, potential civil rights abuses by police, or illegal price fixing or gouging – the President has occasionally, and appropriately, confirmed that the Department is aware of the matter. But the handling of the matter and my decisions on criminal matters have been left to my independent judgment, based on the law and fact, without any direction or interference from the White House or anyone outside the Department.

This is absolute nonsense. Anyone paying attention knows that Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was fired by the president precisely because he refused to improperly intervene in a criminal investigation on his behalf. The events leading up to Barr’s appointment are documented in detail in the Mueller report, which completely obliterates the attorney general’s claim. This inevitably puts pressure on Barr, whether he acknowledges it or not, to stay in line.

And Trump continues to openly comment on and call for specific outcomes in federal criminal matters on Twitter and in remarks to reporters, often for clearly venal reasons. It is so frequent and so bad that Barr himself has publicly complained about it before:

I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case. However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.

4. He claims all of his decisions are entirely non-partisan.

When asked to consider returning, I did so because I revere the Department and believed my independence would allow me to help steer her back to her core mission of applying one standard of justice for everyone and enforcing the law even-handedly, without partisan considerations. Since returning to the Department, I have done precisely that.

Even as he’s engaging in fiery partisan rhetoric and blatantly lying on the president’s behalf, Barr paints himself as the last bastion of non-partisanship in Washington. Whether or not he actually believes this to be true, it’s clearly not, and it’s shameful that he can’t admit it.

He indulges in belligerent screeds against “secularists,” and he blames left-wing radicals for violence while ignoring right-wing extremists. Before he was appointed attorney general, he already dismissed the basis of the Russia investigation while declaring that there was more justification to investigate Hillary Clinton. He cheered James Comey’s decision to announce the reopening of the Clinton email investigation days before the 2016 election, and then he turned around and cheered Trump’s firing of Comey in 2017 — which was justified on the grounds of Comey’s treatment of Clinton.

5. Barr insisted lawmakers should condemn the protester violence in Portland while making no mention of the extensive abuses by law enforcement in response to the protests.

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. At the very least, we should all be able to agree that there is no place in this country for armed mobs that seek to establish autonomous zones beyond government control, or tear down statues and monuments that law-abiding communities chose to erect, or to destroy the property and livelihoods of innocent business owners. The most basic responsibility of government is to ensure the rule of law, so that people can live their lives safely and without fear. The Justice Department will continue working to meet that solemn responsibility.

These remarks are clearly not in keeping with his pledge, quoted above, to keep political rhetoric out of the Justice Department. But more troublingly, it shows that Barr has no concerns for the vast and widespread abuses committed by law enforcement — federal, state, and local — under his watch. He condemned the killing of George Floyd, but he also tries to diminish it by painting such incidents as extremely rare. He doesn’t mention the violence committed at his command against peaceful protests during the recent clearing of Lafayette Square.