Attorney General William P. Barr at a raucous House hearing Tuesday confronted Democrats over their refusal to condemn the violence engulfing Portland, Oregon, and other American cities.
Mr. Barr repeatedly urged Democrats to denounce the attacks at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland, where rioters have injured federal officers with fireworks and have attempted to burn down the building.
“What makes me concerned for the country is this is the first time in my memory the leaders of one of our great two political parties, the Democratic Party, are not coming out and condemning mob violence and the attack on federal courts,” Mr. Barr told lawmakers in his debut appearance before the House Judiciary Committee that oversees his department.
“Why can’t we just say violence against federal courts has to stop,” he said. “Can we hear something like that?”
The attorney general also challenged claims by committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, that Antifa-led violence in Portland is “a myth.”
“I don’t think it’s a myth,” Mr. Barr said, adding that the anarchist group was “heavily represented” in the riots, which have flared up in racial justice protests that have lasted 62 days.
“It’s a national organization that moves nationally. They tend to get organized for an event and there’s a lot of organization right before an event occurs, but we see a lot of the organization during the mob violence,” he told lawmakers. “We are concerned about this problem metastasizing around the country.”
Mr. Barr called the violence in Portland and other cities “an assault on the government of the United States.”
The nearly six-hour hearing grew more heated as it wore on. Democrats talked over Mr. Barr and often interrupted his attempts to answer their questions.
“This is a hearing,” Mr. Barr quipped. “I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard?”
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, demanded Democratic lawmakers let the attorney general respond.
“For months you’ve tried to get the attorney general to come,” Mr. Jordan told Mr. Nadler. “He’s here. Why don’t you let him speak? Why don’t you let him answer the questions?”
In one of the more hostile exchanges, Mr. Nadler accused the attorney general of using federal officers against protesters to create campaign footage for President Trump’s reelection campaign.
As Mr. Barr tried to respond to the question, Mr. Nadler repeatedly interrupted.
Clashes between law enforcement and police have escalated in Portland over the past two months. Since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, large crowds have gathered at the courthouse to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Protesters have accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause. Police officers say the protesters have fired laser pointers at their eyes, causing permanent damage.
Democrats insisted the protests are peaceful, characterizing participants as military veterans and a group of middle-aged mothers known as the “Wall of Moms.”
They accused Mr. Barr of taking a heavy-handed approach to protesters, saying federal officers attacked individuals who were not threats and sprayed others with tear gas.
“Now we see the full force of the federal government brought to bear against citizens demonstrating for the advancement of their own civil rights,” Mr. Nadler said. “There is no precedent for the Department of Justice actively seeking out conflict with American citizens, under such flimsy circumstances.”
Mr. Barr said he had a duty to deploy more than 100 federal troops to Portland. He said if law enforcement abandoned the city, violence could spread across the country.
Federal prosecutors have charged roughly 40 people there over the past two weeks.
“Federal courts are under attack. Since when is it OK to try to burn down a federal court?” he said. “The U.S. Marshals have a duty to stop that and defend the courthouse, and that’s what we are doing in Portland. We are at the courthouse defending the courthouse. We’re not out looking for trouble.”
When asked if Democrats would stick up for law enforcement if protesters attacked the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Barr shot back, “This body? I’m not sure.”
Mr. Barr also bucked Democrats’ accusations that he has politicized the Justice Department at the behest of President Trump.
“I am supposedly punishing the president’s enemies and helping his friends,” he said. “What enemies have I indicted? Could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited — that you feel violates the rule of law? One indictment?”
Citing the criminal case against Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and friend of the president, Mr. Barr said he brought the case, calling it a “righteous prosecution.”
Stone was convicted last year of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction. Mr. Barr pushed for a lesser sentence than the initial seven-to-nine year prison term recommended by Justice Department prosecutors.
“The line prosecutors were trying to advocate for a sentence that was more than twice what anyone else in a similar position had ever served, and this is a 67-year-old man, first-time offender and no violence,” he said.
“I agree the president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people.”
Mr. Barr also touched briefly on the dismissed case against Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser. Mr. Barr said the case warranted dismissal after new evidence suggested FBI officials tried to entrap him.