US attorney general defends aggressive federal response to protests

28 July 2020, 20:09

The attorney general said the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Mr Floyd's killing
The attorney general said the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Mr Floyd's killing. Picture: PA

By Megan White

US attorney general William Barr has defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America following the death of George Floyd.

Mr Barr told members of the House Judiciary Committee that "violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests" sparked by Mr Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The attorney general 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 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 criticised 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.

Reverand Jesse Jackson on Minneapolis protests

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.