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Trump’s push to ‘dominate’ protesters moves Barr to forefront

Chris Strohm
Bloomberg

As President Donald Trump weighs whether to deploy active-duty military troops to confront protesters across the U.S., he’s getting advice from someone who’s been there before: Attorney General William Barr.

Barr was attorney general in 1992 when the Insurrection Act authorizing such an extraordinary deployment was last invoked by President George H.W. Bush to quell riots in Los Angeles over the police arrest and beating of a black man, Rodney King.

Attorney General William Barr crosses Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Department of Justice building, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Washington. Barr said on Saturday that while it's up to state and local leadership to halt the violence, the Department of Justice would support their efforts and take "all action necessary" to enforce federal law that prohibits crossing state lines to participate in or incite violent rioting. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Now, Barr is playing a central and visible role in orchestrating Trump’s hard-line federal response to the demonstrations that have sometimes spiraled into violence and looting after the death of another African-American, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month.

“We will activate Bill Barr and activate him strongly,” Trump told governors in a contentious conference call on Monday.

Barr has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders, enlisting the Justice Department’s firepower to probe the president’s politicized charges that he’s been under siege by a cadre of “deep state” opponents, overruling prosecutors in order to drop charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and saying the Russia probe undertaken by Special Counsel Robert Mueller never should have started.

Attorney General William Barr, second from left, walks to look at an armored vehicle in Lafayette Park as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

But his role in Monday’s events was among his most dramatic by far. In an unusual public appearance, Barr stood in a park across from the White House on Monday as police prepared to rush a group of peaceful protesters and push them back. The move followed a decision earlier in the day to extend the protective perimeter around the White House – a decision one senior Justice Department official said Barr was heavily involved in making in order to avoid the mayhem of previous nights in the nation’s capital.

After the plaza cleared, Trump walked across the park to stand outside a damaged church while holding up a Bible for photographers.

Later, Barr split his time between walking the streets of the nation’s capital and working from a command center he established at the FBI’s Washington field office. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Barr there to lead and observe federal response efforts, a senior defense official told reporters.

In a statement Tuesday, Barr praised the response in Washington on Monday and vowed “there will be even greater law enforcement resources and support in the region tonight.” He said “the most basic function of government is to provide security for people to live their lives and exercise their rights.”

With Washington’s mayor invoking another curfew for Tuesday, the attorney general was spending much of his time meeting with officials from other federal agencies and coordinating response operations from the command center, a Justice Department official said.

In part, Barr’s prominent role simply reflects his position as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Trump directed him “to lead federal law enforcement efforts to assist in the restoration of order to the District of Columbia,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

Dominate the Streets

But it also represents Barr’s longtime advocacy of the view that a president holds sweeping powers as well as his personal law-and-order philosophy and the close relationship he’s developed with Trump.

“Law enforcement response is not gonna work unless we dominate the streets,” Barr told the governors, echoing Trump’s exhortation to them. “If we treat these as demonstrations, the police are pinned back, guarding places and don’t have the dynamic ability to go out and arrest the troublemakers.”

Trump said on Monday that if states don’t take forceful action he might invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that lets active-duty military personnel carry out law enforcement operations and arrests inside the U.S. that are otherwise prohibited. Pentagon officials told reporters Tuesday that it would be better to rely on the National Guard troops already being deployed by the thousands.

So far, Barr has concentrated on using federal law enforcement powers to pursue what he and Trump have called “domestic terrorism” by groups such as antifa, a loose alliance of militant left-wing activists.

Barr said in a May 30 statement that outrage over Floyd’s death “is real and legitimate” and accountability is being addressed through the federal and state criminal justice system.

“Unfortunately, with the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements,” Barr said.

The Justice Department has deployed all of its agencies, including the FBI, and is coordinating with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, Kupec said. The department also is “working hand-in-hand with the Metropolitan Police Department, the Capitol Police, the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Secret Service, and the D.C. National Guard,” she said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Monday that Barr and other top administration officials including Esper will be part of “a central command center in conjunction with the state and local governments.”

Fealty to Trump

But as Democratic rival Joe Biden castigates Trump for fanning “the flames of hate” and a number of governors denounce the notion of sending active-duty troops into their states, Barr may face renewed criticism for his fealty to Trump.

He already is under attack from critics who say he’s attempting to undo the results of the federal investigation into whether Trump or anyone associated with his presidential campaign helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election.

In a fiery speech before the conservative Federalist Society in November, Barr denounced efforts to limit the power of the presidency and slammed those who oppose Trump.

“One of the ironies of today is that those who oppose this president constantly accuse this administration of shredding constitutional norms and waging a war on the rule of law,” Barr said. Instead, he said, “it is the left that has engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law.”