As President Trump continues to try and drum up support for his call for states to “dominate” protesters and beef up police presence against them, Attorney General Bill Barr and a team of senior Justice Department officials have quietly taken the lead on disrupting the protests and going after the petty criminals who may be using the demonstrations as cover.
It’s been a controversial move, even within Barr’s own department. One federal prosecutor called Barr’s most high-profile effort to quell the unrest “politically-charged [and] bogus.” A senior law enforcement official called it “a political ploy to make being anti-Trump look like terrorism.”
Until Thursday, the department had operated largely behind closed doors in carrying out its plan to take charge of the administration’s response to the nationwide protests. But on Thursday afternoon, Barr, alongside FBI Director Chris Wray, and representatives from other leading law enforcement agencies, took the stage to discuss in detail the Department of Justice’s strategy in cracking down on “extremists and agitators that hijack the protest.”
Barr said his department, along with other federal law enforcement agencies, are working with state and local officials to identify individuals who have looted storefronts and incited violence from the larger groups of peaceful protests. “We understand the distinction between the three different sets of actors,” Barr said.
But, the attorney general said, President Trump pushed him to use all resources necessary to pursue individuals who engage in “crimes to terrify citizens.” Barr claimed that “antifa” and “other such extremist groups” were hijacking protests, looting, and setting police cars on fire. He acknowledged that groups with “other political persuasions” were also involved. But he failed to call out those individuals who, for example, were charged with similar crimes in Las Vegas and identified with the right-wing “Boogooloo” movement.
When questioned by a reporter about his choice of words, Barr dodged and pointed to the fact that he had said that there were other groups involved in these crimes.
Throughout the press conference both Barr and Wray continually used the word “rioting” to describe acts by “extremists and agitators” hijacking protests. The choice of words was unusual, given the fact that only two of the federal cases charged so far had anything to do with “rioting,” according to a data obtained by The Daily Beast. One senior justice official told The Daily Beast Wednesday that the “rioting” charge was overly broad and that it was important to note in reporting that the department was staying away from it.
Of the 20 individuals brought up on federal charges since May 31, only two have been charged with crimes related to rioting. Both were charged under Title 18, section 2101 of the U.S. Code, which references “riots.” Carlos A. Matchett of Atlantic City was arrested Wednesday by the FBI and was charged with using “a facility of interstate and foreign commerce, namely, a cellular telephone and the social media platform Facebook, Inc., with intent to participate in and carry on a riot,” according to a DOJ news release. And in Eerie, Pennsylvania, Melquan Barnett was charged with malicious destruction of property using fire or explosives. He was charged under several federal statutes, including Title 18 USC 2101.
The attorney general’s efforts to crack down on individuals involved in the protests shows the extent to which the Department of Justice is playing a leading role in the administration’s response to the chaos that has ensnared cities across the U.S. Meanwhile, Trump this week sheltered in a bunker as protests grew in Washington and posed for a photo op, with a bible, in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and said he would take any means necessary to stop “acts of domestic terror.” As the Pentagon has moved to distance itself from Trump’s rhetoric about militarizing American cities, the Department of Justice appears to be using a different tactic: aggression.
In the early hours following clashes between protesters and police in Minneapolis on May 26, Barr and senior officials at DOJ began holding meetings and calls, strategizing ways to clamp down, two senior officials in the department told The Daily Beast. Scenes of looters ransacking local shops and vandalizing police buildings unnerved Barr, those officials said, and the attorney general directed his team to find a framework to identify and arrest those individuals and charge them with federal crimes. The idea was to try and take control of the administration’s response to the protests by relying on the FBI’s regional counterterrorism hubs to share information with local law enforcement about, in Barr’s own words, “extremists.”
It wasn’t immediately clear to senior justice officials working with Barr how the department would go about implementing an initiative focused on arresting and charging individuals with federal crimes on a nationwide scale. The fear was states would push back on Barr’s intervention, just as they had with Trump demanding they accept assistance from the National Guard. A third justice official said there was additional concern that the plan would require rigorous investigative and surveillance efforts that could take away from other ongoing law enforcement matters.
That’s when Barr turned to an existing counterterrorism network—Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs)— led by the FBI that unite federal, state and local law enforcement to monitor and pursue suspected terrorists. A few days later, Barr communicated his plans to the nation’s governors.
“The construction we are going to use is the JTTF. It’s a tried and true system. It worked for domestic homegrown terrorists. We’re going to apply that model,” Barr said on the call. “It already integrates your state and local people. It’s intelligence driven. We want to lean forward and charge … anyone who violates a federal law in connection with this rioting.”
President Trump technically ran the call with the governors, directing them to punch “hashtag two” to get on the line to ask questions. But the president repeatedly handed the reins over to Barr. “We will activate Bill Barr and we will activate him strongly,” Trump said. Barr, under questioning from Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, laid out his thinking on why states needed to “dominate” the streets.
“We need to have people in control of the streets so we can go out and work with law enforcement ... identify these people in the crowd, pull them out and prosecute them,” Barr said.
In the past week, federal officers have charged three individuals in New York and two in Minnesota for alleged involvement in Molotov cocktail attacks on municipal properties. And on Monday, following the president’s remarks in Lafayette Park in which he threatened states with sending in active military personnel to their cities, arrest numbers more than doubled in DC and New York City.
Barr’s enthusiasm for the crackdown is conspicuous. It stands in marked contrast to the Pentagon, which is reeling from its leadership’s decision to appear beside Trump after park police, supported by National Guardsmen, violently cleared Lafayette Park from peaceful protesters so the president could stage a photo op – reportedly Barr’s idea. Two days later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, under withering criticism for his tacit endorsement of the action, publicly rejected Trump’s threat to use the active-duty military against the protesters, something that has jeopardized Esper’s standing in the administration.
To those close to Trump, it is no surprise that the president has given Barr such a broad professional mandate in imposing their particular mold of law and order as the civil unrest has spread. “[For days], the president has [bragged to officials] how ‘tough’ the attorney general is, and that if anyone can restore order, it’s this guy,” according to a senior administration official. “The president sees Barr as [the] ‘bad cop’ he can unleash if states and cities don’t get their act together.”
A senior official at the Department of Justice said there is a small team working to track the results of the attorney general’s directive that more resources be put toward investigating and prosecuting “agitators.” In Washington, there have been a little over 100 arrests that went to the local U.S. attorneys office. Of those arrested, 75 were charged but only one person was charged with a federal crime for breaking into a bank, according to a senior justice official. There are eight federal charges pending in the city, that person said. None of the defendants were charged with rioting.
According to multiple current and former Justice Department and law enforcement officials, Barr is misusing the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) in support of President Trump’s insistence that antifascists are “terrorists” exploiting the nationwide protests. Antifa is not an organization, nor is there a domestic terrorism statute for designating them terrorists. The early federal charges emerging from Barr’s crackdown concern crimes like arson, not terrorism-related offenses. And in Nevada, three men with ties to a right-wing extremists advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government were arrested on terrorism-related charges for a conspiracy to carry out acts of violence during protests in Las Vegas. Veteran law enforcement officials point to the gulf between Barr’s treatment of the left-wing protesters and far more violent right-wing elements whom the Justice Department has not prioritized.
A federal prosecutor who requested anonymity said the use of the JTTF against the protests revealed Barr’s double standards, as right-wing violence – aimed unlike the protesters against people, rather than property – has yet to register as a priority. “We didn’t hear anything about the Justice Department calling on JTTFs after, say, a manifesto-writing lunatic murdered people in Wal-Mart, or another political-slogan-spouting crazy sent bombs to Soros’ house in New York,” the prosecutor said.
The prosecutor considered Barr’s behavior over the protests to be “a new low” for the attorney general. “He attributes all the violent, destructive activity in the protests to ‘left-wing antifa’ elements. He has no evidence to back that up whatsoever,” the prosecutor said.
Another senior law enforcement official said that using the JTTF against the protesters is “a political ploy to make being anti-Trump look like terrorism.” Two officials familiar with JTTF operations described cases against protesters being turned over from counterterrorism-focused participants to federal prosecutors and FBI special agents to determine what activity violates existing federal statutes.
The FBI portrayed its use of the JTTFs in relation to the protests as a repurposing of a network it already had in place to connect its agents to local police in the cities where the protests are occurring, rather than an indication that “antifa” or other protesters represented a terrorist threat.
“JTTFs are being utilized as an existing partnership of federal, state, and local law enforcement that is already in place. Their focus is on identifying and disrupting criminal activity and as such, the statutory limitations around domestic use of national security intelligence authorities apply,” the FBI told the Daily Beast in a statement.
Still, federal prosecutors and JTTF veterans expressed concern about the propriety of aiming a tool for counterterrorism at protesters, particularly when the FBI concedes that the JTTF focus is on criminal activity rather than terrorism.
In other words, the JTTFs are a mechanism of convenience rather than an indication of any terrorist element within the protests: “If we were invaded by Mars, we’d use JTTFs, an existing partnership, for an anti-Martian task force,” said the federal prosecutor. The greater issue, the prosecutor continued, is a “politically-charged, bogus attempt to attribute all this to left-wing activity and the use of inappropriate means to respond. Civil society leaders everywhere are able to draw the distinction between peaceful protesters, property crimes and people throwing bricks at cops, and Barr is unable to make this distinction.”
Barr’s focus is also conspicuous for overlooking the most violent element in the protests: the police, whose slaying of George Floyd – and thousands of African-American men, women and children before him – sparked the nationwide protests.
In New York City, videos surfaced on social media showing police officers plowing through protesters with their cars. In Atlanta, officers dragged college students from a car and shot them with stun guns. In Manhattan on Sunday night, a Daily Beast reporter saw at least three police officers take nightsticks to a protester who was already on the ground after he ran from an officer who had unholstered his gun. By contrast, dozens of individuals involved in protests throughout the country—many of them white—have smashed storefronts, stealing clothes and other merchandise, and some set fire to police cars. The Trump administration actively encourages police violence on people, while describing as “terrorism” crimes that are largely against property.
Still, Barr is not without his high-profile supporters. Ever since his handling of the unveiling of the Mueller report, Barr has become not just a favorite of the president’s, but a folk hero throughout Trumpworld.
“Bill has tremendous insight and knowledge both of the applicable laws and the conditional implications of the current situation. The president made a wise choice in nominating Bill Barr to be attorney general, and he has served the country well and will continue to do so [in this crisis],” said Jay Sekulow, a Trump attorney who has known Barr for years. “He’s doing a phenomenal job.”
—with additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley and Asawin Suebsaeng