Below is my column on the recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee with Attorney General William Barr. The hearing was widely ridiculed after Barr was repeatedly prevented from answering questions. It was a great disappointment. I just testified on the Lafayette Park controversy and many of us were waiting for a month to hear from Barr directly on the details, particularly the statements of many in the media that the Park area was cleared to allow President Trump to take a picture in front of St. John’s Church. Democratic members continued to refer to that as a fact (as has many in the media) despite the federal agencies supplying information that shows that the plan was approved days before and the order was given with no knowledge of the photo op. Yet, on repeated occasions Barr tried to supply times and dates, Democratic members immediately “took back the time” and even got angry when he tried to answer. The same is true on other controversies. We lost an opportunity to actually answer these questions. Yet, after repeatedly blocking Barr from answering, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him a “Blob” at the hearing. He might seemed less blob-like if Democrats allowed him to speak. Instead, the hearing was an example of how Congress will work tirelessly not to find answers when a narrative is too good to check.
Here is the column:
Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” If he knew members of the House Judiciary Committee, he could have cut that time in half, as they might convince people that democracy is a failed experiment.
The hearing with Attorney General William Barr had been long awaited for weeks as a way to get answers on issues ranging from the controversial clearing of Lafayette Park, to the intervention in the case of Roger Stone, to the violence across various cities. Instead, the public watched as both parties engaged in hours of primal scream therapy, with Barr for the most part forced to remain as silent as some life size anatomical doll.
The videos shown by the rival parties captured the utter absurdity of the day. Republicans played what could only be described as eight minutes of virtual “riot porn” for the hard right. By the end, one would think much of the nation is a smoking dystopian hellscape. Democrats then played their alternate reality video showing thousands of protesters chanting together in perfect harmony. Add a soundtrack to the scene and you would have a soda commercial. There was nothing in the middle: either the protests are either our final Armageddon or the Garden of Eden.
After testifying recently on the Lafayette Park controversy, I was one of those who had great expectations for answers to significant questions. Instead, Democrats dramatically demanded answers and then stopped Barr from answering by immediately “taking back the time.” It happened over and over during the hearing. Democrats simply did not want to hear any answers that would undermine the popular narratives.
Several Democrats insisted the clearing of Lafayette Park was for the sole purpose of a photo for President Trump in front of Saint John Church. Barr sought to explain that there was no connection between the plan formed the weekend before and the photo, but he was stopped by members like Hank Johnson saying “you clearly will not answer the question” before he could even start to answer. It got more and more bizarre.
Barr was repeatedly cut off by Democrats, while Republicans, who have done the same thing to witnesses in other hearings, raged against their colleagues. The result was mayhem. While Barr sarcastically referred to Jerrold Nadler as a “real class act” after Nadler refused a request for a break, the hearing had as much class as a demolition derby.
Just as Democrats did not want to hear the facts regarding Lafayette Park, they were adamant in not allowing Barr to refute other popular narratives in the mainstream media, like the changed sentencing recommendation for Stone. Barr struggled to give specific facts on that case as Democrats quickly interrupted him. Barr then used questions from Republicans to try to answer. He explained that Trump never spoke to him of the sentencing of Stone and that Barr had never raised the sentencing issue.
Rather, Barr insisted that the change was raised to him by a new United States attorney who felt the trial prosecutors were wildly off base in their demand for up to nine years of prison. Many of us in the criminal defense area raised the same objection. The Justice Department then decided to change the recommendation to be consistent with past cases.
However, Barr said the trial prosecutors ignored those instructions from their superiors, requiring the filing of a correction. When Trump posted a reckless tweet the next morning on the original recommendation, it had nothing to do with the decision to change it. When Barr tried to note that the trial judge agreed with the recommendation in the case as well as the ultimate sentence of 40 months, Democrats cut him off again.
For Republicans, less was also more during the hearing. Journalist Jake Tapper responded to the video they showed of rioting, which included a series of reporters talking about peaceful protests. Tapper showed that the videos had been edited to cut off the same reporters who eventually note that largely peaceful protests became violent rioting.
No one seemed eager to hear anything beyond sound bites. Barr offered statistics that the shootings of African Americans by police officers has been on the decline and that the eight African Americans who died in the previous year from police shootings represented a smaller number than whites shot by police officers. He also argued that police are statistically less likely to use lethal force in dealing with black suspects.
Those claims are subject to challenge, and the hearing could have had a discussion of systemic racism, but no one wanted that type of deep dive. When Barr disagreed there is systemic racism in the legal system, Cedric Richmond insisted, “When you all came here and brought your top staff, you brought no black people. That is systematic racism.”
Indeed, Democrats seemed intent to not allow Barr to say anything in the hearing. When Pramila Jayapal accused him of ordering officers “to tear gas, pepper spray, and beat protesters and injure Americans who were just simply exercising their First Amendment,” Barr began to correct the claims but was cut off by Jayapal, who warned, “I just asked for a yes or no. So let me just tell you, I am starting to lose my temper.”
By that point, many Americans undoubtedly had moved beyond anger, as both parties fiddle with politics while the nation burns. Churchill yet again almost captured the moment when he derided one British prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, as “a great man in an era of small events.” What the public witnessed in this hearing were small people in an era of great events. It was not the lack of interest in answers but the lack of interest in solutions that was readily apparent to anyone watching the hearing.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.