It took 14 months, but the House Judiciary Committee finally got its man.
And after myriad controversies, Attorney General William Barr’s long awaited — and repeatedly delayed — testimony to the panel arrives Tuesday at the nadir of trust between Capitol Hill Democrats and the Justice Department. In fact, committee Democrats say they intend to distill their lengthy list of urgent issues down to one theme: that Barr has reoriented DOJ to serve Trump, rather than the nation.
“Bill Barr has been elevating Donald Trump’s personal interest above that of America,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “We want to shed light on those actions and find the basis for those actions if there are any.”
It’s a hearing whose importance has been magnified not least because it’s taken more than a year to arrange. Democrats first sought Barr’s testimony in May 2019, on the heels of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. But Barr called it off after Chairman Jerry Nadler unveiled plans to allow staff counsel to question him. A subsequent effort for his testimony fell apart in March, after the Covid-19 pandemic overtook the agenda. Finally, Nadler threatened to subpoena Barr last month before the two sides at last agreed to the Tuesday hearing.
For Barr, the hearing will largely consist of parrying the torrent of attacks from Democrats who have been eager to upbraid him on national TV — and then catching his breath during what is likelier to be friendlier questions from the committee’s Republicans.
In his prepared opening statement released by the Justice Department, Barr also waded into the national reckoning on race and police, saying that "every instance of excessive force is unacceptable and must be addressed, as is happening now in Minneapolis."
But Barr's testimony also appeared to blame nationwide protests against police brutality on rising crime rates in some cities.
"When a community turns on and pillories its own police, officers naturally become more risk averse and crime rates soar," he said. "Unfortunately, we are seeing that now in many of our major cities."
Democrats practiced for the hearing on Sunday, paring down a list of concerns they acknowledge is too unwieldy to cover completely.
But the still-lengthy list is expected to include: Barr’s intervention in the prosecutions of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone; his orchestration of a security crackdown against a peaceful protest in Washington D.C. last month and subsequent crackdowns in other American cities; efforts to retool the Census; lawsuits against state and local governments for their management of the coronavirus pandemic; and Barr’s removal of Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor along with similar efforts to uproot the leaders of other U.S. attorney offices handling politically sensitive cases.
Barr signaled he was ready for a clash with Democrats by slamming "the grave abuses involved in the bogus 'Russiagate' scandal" in his opening remarks. He also accused committee Democrats of trying 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."
"My decisions on criminal matters before the Department have been my own, and they have been made because I believed they were right under the law and principles of justice," he added.
Despite his defense of Trump as a hands-off president, Barr has previously bristled at Trump’s repeated efforts to lean on the department via Twitter and once said it was making it “impossible” to do his job.
Though the confrontation is likely to be fierce, committee aides say it’s unlikely to escalate to the rarely used step of on-the-spot subpoenas if Barr declines to answer questions, even if he suggests some answers might be subject to executive privilege.
“At the end of the day, a subpoena on the spot, although a dramatic tool, is not likely to resolve that situation,” said a Democratic committee counsel.
The 10:00 a.m. hearing is expected to last close to five hours, factoring in five minutes of questioning for each of its 41 members.
Republicans, too, have a lengthy list of questions for Barr with a completely different focus. The GOP is expected to zero in on the ongoing efforts by U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe that Mueller later took over. Trump and his allies have repeatedly predicted Durham would issue damning findings about political motivations behind the Russia probe, though lately those hopes have grown muted as hints have emerged that the investigation could linger past the election.
Judiciary Committee Republicans may press Barr on that timetable. But they’re also likely to echo his defense of the presence of federal law enforcement officers in Portland.
“It’s important to hear from them on how they’re doing this, particularly with the protection of federal property when communities have abdicated their responsibility,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).
Armstrong predicted that Democrats would have trouble eliciting the soundbites and revealing information they’re hoping Barr provides. “He’s very good at this,” he said.
One aide to a committee Democrat said the hearing might disappoint those hoping for fireworks. Committee Democrats are much less amped up for the hearing than they were during the impeachment process, the aide said, and the hearing is unlikely to feature dramatic revelations or plot twists.
“It’ll be like impeachment on Prozac,” the aide said.
Barr, meanwhile, has had multiple meetings with staff to prepare for the hearing, DOJ officials told POLITICO. He’s preparing for questions on national policing controversies, violent crime, and the controversial government surveillance authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Three DOJ officials will accompany him to the hearing: top spokesperson Kerri Kupec, legislative affairs chief Stephen Boyd, and Barr’s chief of staff, Will Levi.