But, he said, the federal government would be “keeping a careful eye on” the situation, and stressed that officials should be “very careful to make sure that the draconian measures that are being adopted are fully justified.”
“When this period of time, at the end of April, expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under their bed, but allow them to use other ways — social distancing and other means — to protect themselves,” Barr said.
The White House has advised people to limit the size of social gatherings and practice other social distancing measures through April amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19. Most states have imposed even more aggressive measures, ordering residents to gather only in small groups and venture outdoors for only essential trips or possibly face fines or other penalties.
Although Barr has appeared twice at White House coronavirus briefings, his comments to Fox News were the most extensive yet that he has made on the public health crisis and the steps the government has taken to stem it. Repeatedly, Ingraham pressed the country’s top law enforcement official on how the government’s actions comport with Americans constitutional rights to gather and worship freely. Churches, like other businesses, have been essentially closed in the crisis.
Barr said that governments had a right to put restrictions on churches, so long as they were treated no differently than other institutions, but added he was “very concerned” about possible encroachments on Americans’ freedom of religion. Barr said he was also concerned about the “tracking of people” that some experts have advised might be necessary to quickly identify and quarantine those infected.
When the White House’s social distancing guidance expires, Barr said, “I think we have to consider alternative ways of protecting people.”
The comments were particularly notable because during his lengthy career, Barr has been a champion of a strong executive branch of government — frequently drawing criticism from civil liberties’ advocates.
Barr lauded President Trump in the interview, and there was no indication he would legally object to the steps taken so far by the president or state leaders. Barr praised in particular Trump’s deference to state officials, and — like Trump has done at his daily media briefings — lashed out at the media.
Barr said Trump had been the recipient of “snarky, gotcha questions from the White House media pool” and took particular aim at inquiries about the drug hydroxychloroquine. Trump has touted the drug as a possible treatment for covid-19, although its effectiveness has not been proven.
“As soon as he said something positive about it, the media’s been on a jihad to discredit the drug,” Barr said.
Some U.S. attorneys have warned physicians that if they improperly prescribe the drug to family members or otherwise hoard it, they could face criminal penalties.
But Barr’s other comments suggest he might harbor some wariness of state governments’ closures of nonessential businesses and ordering people to stay at home in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
“I am concerned that we not get into the business of declaring everything an emergency and then using these kinds of sweeping, extraordinary steps,” Barr said. “But given where we were back in March, I think the president made the right decision.”
Barr noted the economics of the shutdown could cost lives. For example, he said, cancer researchers were probably at home now, not doing their critical work.
“We will have a weaker health-care system if we go into a deep depression,” Barr said. “So just measured in lives, the cure cannot be worse than the disease.”
Barr said he is conducting more of his meetings digitally, and when he does travel to and from work, he and his security detail wear masks.
At Barr’s direction, the Justice Department has taken a particularly aggressive posture toward virus-related crimes. On Wednesday, prosecutors revealed they had unsealed federal charges against a Florida domestic violence suspect who spit in a police officer’s face and claimed falsely to have the coronavirus, and against a Texas man who claimed falsely on Facebook to have paid someone to spread the coronavirus at grocery stores.
Responding to questions from Ingraham, though, Barr also seemed to turn his focus to past Justice Department business: the 2016 FBI investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. In a brief clip promoting additional portions of the interview, Barr told Ingraham that what happened to Trump in that investigation “was one of the greatest travesties in American history.”
Contradicting his own inspector general, as he has in the past, Barr said the probe was started “without any basis” and that the steps taken after Trump’s election were meant “to sabotage the presidency,” or at least they had that effect. Ingraham said Fox News is planning to air more of the interview Thursday.