Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee waited months for the chance to interrogate Attorney General William Barr on everything from his handling of sensitive prosecutions to his clampdown on police protests.
And by the time the five-hour hearing wrapped on Tuesday, they were claiming success in eliciting the type of newsworthy admissions and made-for-Twitter exchanges that could bolster their broader criticisms of the Trump administration.
But the journey to those victories was decidedly rocky. And in the eyes of some friendly observers, Tuesday’s slugfest raised real questions about how the panel’s chairman and its most senior members are approaching oversight in the Trump era.
The armchair quarterbacking began almost immediately after the hearing opened. But those doing it were not merely Twitter talking heads but top legal voices upon which the party relies. After Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) opened the hearing by trying to pin down Barr on whether the Department of Justice’s crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters was informed by politics, Daniel Goldman—a former aide to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) who was a lead inquisitor during Trump’s impeachment—tweeted tersely that the New York Democrat had conducted an “ineffective opening line of questioning.”
Goldman’s charge raised plenty of eyebrows among Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill. But, privately, many didn’t disagree with his point.
“Nadler is always trying to hit a target he can’t seem to hit,” said one Democratic staffer, who requested anonymity to discuss the committee candidly. “I think he feels the criticism.”
The criticisms weren’t limited to Nadler. When it was Rep. Steve Cohen’s (D-TN) turn to question Barr, the result was a five-minute block that included an outraged reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s death in federal custody. Prominent former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara tweeted “disappointing hearing.” Four minutes later, he added, “getting worse.”
Another former prosecutor and cable news fixture, Elie Honig, tweeted after the first hour of the hearing that Democrats “have to bring it. Direct, factual, undeniable yes/no questions on the areas of most vulnerability. They have not done that at all so far.”
The failure to knock Barr off-message risked depriving Democrats of the one chance they had to quiz a figure at the center of a myriad of controversies, seriously raising the possibility that the attorney general would skate through the final months of President Trump’s first term without the intense scrutiny on key points that many Democrats believe he deserves.
And then, things changed. As House Judiciary Democrats went deeper into their bench, less senior lawmakers managed to get under the skin of the notoriously testy attorney general. Indeed, some of the most memorable admissions from Barr ended up coming from freshman lawmakers, like Reps. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA).
To many Democrats, the flow of the hearing raised familiar questions about the party’s ability to effectively push back on the Trump administration. It also refreshed a long-running debate about the strength of the more aggressive, younger generation of Democratic lawmakers—and the need, perhaps, for the old guard to make way for them.
The newer Democratic lawmakers study hard, said Philippe Reines, a longtime Democratic operative who worked in the House and Senate and has done hearing prep like this before. “They are also on fewer big committees so aren’t stretched as thin as more senior members. And more of them have prosecutorial backgrounds, or are closer to their prosecutorial days. It’s a hundred things. Including the likeliest: they’re really worked up about these issues / events.”
The Barr hearing, said the Democratic staffer, “proves how impressive this freshman class is, and how senior members are still trying to figure out how to operate in the majority.”
The criticism represents another rough spot for Nadler, who since taking the Judiciary gavel in January 2019 has faced strong headwinds in holding Trump to account. The chairman has had a dogged time getting Barr to hand over key documents and appear before the committee. And when Trump’s impeachment finally became unavoidable after news of Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign came to light, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) effectively gave the ball to Schiff, and even came close to wresting any control over the process out of Nadler’s committee entirely.
But Nadler has plenty of defenders on and off Capitol Hill.
In response to a question from The Daily Beast about the criticism directed at Nadler and other members, a spokesperson for the committee said, “We worked with every single member of the Committee on their questions, and worked through the themes we were trying to hit in today’s hearing, both in terms of substance and style.”
“In the end, it is up to each member to make decisions on what they want their 5 minutes to focus on and how they want to conduct their questioning,” said the spokesman. “We felt all of the Committee Members did an excellent job today of showcasing the overt politicization AG Barr is carrying out on behalf of President Trump, which is exactly what this hearing was focused on.”
The hearing with the attorney general—who had never appeared before the committee that oversees his department—was, indeed, highly anticipated by Democrats for over a year as a crucial opportunity to interrogate a man they see as Trump’s ruthless legal enforcer.
Lawmakers were eager to press Barr not only on the Russia investigation but also the Department of Justice’s aggressive response to recent police protests, its efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in court, and its stances on a range of issues from immigration to voting rights.
The proceeding on Tuesday was tense throughout, with Democratic lawmakers and Barr frequently raising their voices and cutting each other off, while the GOP side of the dais needled Democrats and bucked up Barr.
Against that backdrop, some observers felt that Nadler did a fine job in an unenviable situation. Max Bergmann, head of the Center for American Progress think tank’s Moscow Project, which focuses on Trump’s ties with Russia, said some of the criticism directed at Nadler was too harsh.
“Nadler, to me, is the quarterback of the team—maybe his line of questioning could have been slightly more effective, but Barr is a formidable adversary,” said Bergmann. “I think Nadler laid out pretty clearly the critique and the concerns that Democrats have of Barr.”
And Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at the progressive group Demand Progress, said if Democrats’ goal was to show that Barr operates as an arm of Trump, they succeeded. “I thought they covered a lot of ground, more ground than I would have expected,” said Vitka. “With everything going on that needs to be asked of Barr, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they didn’t get to half the territory they got to today.”
From the outset, Nadler signaled that pressing Barr over his handling of protests—specifically, his deployment of federal law enforcement in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., to push back against demonstrators—would be a priority. But in his questioning, the chairman zeroed in on attempting to get answers about a DOJ rebrand of a specific inner-city law enforcement operation known as “Operation Legend” in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death.
Nadler got Barr to acknowledge that he misspoke in saying the program had resulted in the arrests of 200 people in Kansas City, when it had in fact resulted in one arrest. But he had a harder time wringing out of that point any larger admission from Barr over election-year politics at work in a DOJ operation. While Barr acknowledged that he speaks to the president about the election—itself, a revealing statement—he didn’t offer much more in the way of context, and pointed to the disruption of the coronavirus outbreak as an explanation for some of the DOJ's law enforcement plans.
Other senior members were able to land fewer blows against Barr, but when some mid-level and junior members got their turns, they honed in on clear areas of vulnerability for the attorney general. One was his ouster of Geoffrey Berman, who was prosecutor for the Southern District of New York. On June 19, Barr issued a statement saying Berman was “stepping down” from the post. The statement was deliberately untrue. Barr had been trying privately to get Berman out of his post and had failed to that point.
Under questioning from Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), a second-term member, Barr admitted what Berman had told the committee before: that Barr was lying when he stated Berman was stepping down. When Neguse asked him about it later, Barr made one of the more eyebrow-raising admissions of the day: “He may not have known it yet,” the AG said of Berman, “but he was stepping down.”
Later into the hearing, Scanlon scored another admission from Barr, who has himself raised Trump’s unsupported theories that foreign countries could manipulate the U.S. election by counterfeiting mail-in ballots. Asked by the congresswoman if he had any evidence for that claim, Barr conceded: “No, I don’t, but I have common sense.”
To some Democrats observing, these questions from the so-called “bottom row” of the dais were the strongest moments of the hearing, and many lament that they tend to come hours into the proceeding after viewer’s appetites tend to wane.
“There’s a real energy there, that we need to stand up to this” said Bergmann of the new guard.
—With reporting from Sam Stein