Attorney General William Barr said in a speech Wednesday that lockdowns intended to slow the spread of the new coronavirus were “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in the history of the United States since slavery.
“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” he said, according to CNN. The crowd at Hillsdale College in Michigan reportedly burst into applause.
One of the hosts of the event had asked him about “constitutional hurdles for forbidding a church from meeting during COVID-19.” Barr advocated for allowing businesses to reopen in addition to his statement on civil liberties.
Since assuming office in February 2019, Barr has repeatedly been accused of bending the Justice Department to the political agenda of President Donald Trump’s administration. On Wednesday, he addressed the criticism that he has interfered with high-profile cases like the prosecutions of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump adviser Roger Stone.
“What exactly am I interfering with? When you boil it right down, it's the will of the most junior member of the organization who has some idea he wants to do something. What makes that sacrosanct?” he said.
He went on to belittle prosecutors in the Department of Justice—which he heads—by comparing them to toddlers.
“Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct—there aren’t. There aren’t any letting the most junior members set the agenda. It might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency,” he said.
The comments came the same day Barr advised federal prosecutors to charge violent protesters with sedition, the federal crime of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government that carries a heavy sentence. He’s also reportedly asked prosecutors to look into charging the mayor of Seattle with a criminal offense for allowing protesters to establish an encampment that barred police from entering earlier this summer.
His remarks on Wednesday echo Trump’s, who has raged against Democratic governors instituting strict shutdowns to prevent COVID-19 infections.
Barr said, “Most of the governors do what bureaucrats always do, which is they... defy common sense. They treat free citizens as babies that can't take responsibility for themselves and others.”