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Barr defends aggressive response to protests, while acknowledging ‘long-standing’ black concerns about police

Attorney General William P. Barr holds a news conference Thursday to discuss the ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd. (Pool/Reuters)

In his most extensive comments yet on the civil unrest gripping the country, Attorney General William P. Barr defended law enforcement’s aggressive, militaristic response to protests while acknowledging the “long-standing” concerns with police that were exposed by the recent death of a black man in Minnesota while in custody.

Speaking from Justice Department headquarters and flanked by the leaders of all of the agency’s law enforcement components, Barr sought to strike a somber tone.

He stressed the “horror” of watching the video that captured a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd — whose death sparked the protests gripping the country — and took pains to note it “exposes concerns that reach far beyond this particular case.”

“It is undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in our American criminal justice system,” Barr said. “This must change.”

But Barr also vigorously defended the aggressive law enforcement response he has spearheaded in response to demonstrations, including police’s move Monday to use horses and gas to push back largely peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square, just outside the White House. The episode has elicited an intense backlash against both Barr and President Trump.

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Strikingly, the attorney general voiced particular approval of Trump’s decision to walk across the street and pose for a photo at St. John’s Church soon after the demonstrators had been forced away. Barr said the decision had been made earlier in the day to extend the security perimeter outside the White House, and there was “no correlation” between that and Trump going to the church. Barr was among those who posed for a photo with the president.

“I don’t necessarily view that as a political act,” Barr said. “I think it was entirely appropriate for him to do.”

Barr has personally orchestrated the stunning show of force on D.C. streets in recent weeks to end the sometimes violent demonstrations — a response which has drawn criticism for escalating tensions in a particularly fraught time. The Washington Post had reported previously that Barr personally directed law enforcement on the ground in Lafayette Square to move back the protesters, after showing up to the scene and being surprised the perimeter had not already been extended.

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Barr addressed the controversy for the first time Thursday. He said the violence in D.C. “came to a crescendo over the weekend” in Lafayette Square, where demonstrators threw projectiles, burned down a historical building and set a fire in St. John’s Church across the street.

From Saturday to Thursday, he said, there had been 114 injuries to law enforcement and 22 hospitalizations — most of those for concussions or serious head injuries. Barr said that on Monday, Trump asked him to “coordinate the various federal law enforcement agencies” — including those in the Department of Homeland Security, which is normally outside the Justice Department purview.

Barr said he made the decision early Monday to move the security perimeter northward by a block, from H Street to I Street, and later, around 2 p.m., met with law enforcement agencies to lay out a plan for doing so.

“It was our hope to be able to do that relatively quickly, before many demonstrators appeared that day,” Barr said. But he said officials could not get units in place quickly enough.

Barr personally ordered removal of protesters near White House, leading to use of force against largely peaceful crowd

Barr emphasized that many protesters have been peaceful, and blamed “extremist agitators” for exploiting the situation. He said the agitators have “a variety of different political persuasions.” He named only one, though — the antifa, or anti-fascist, ideology, which Trump has also sought to blame for the violence. Barr said the Justice Department was also “seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said foreign entities were using state-controlled media and social media to amplify divisions in the U.S. Barr said the federal government had made more than 50 arrests for federal crimes in connection with the riots.

As when Trump addressed the unrest just before he went to the church, Barr stressed the importance of “law and order.”

“Our free society still depends on the rule of law,” Barr said.

While Barr said the violent demonstrations posed a challenge to the rule of law, he noted that so, too, did the death of Floyd and the “long-standing” issues it demonstrates. Barr said the FBI was investigating the matter as a civil rights case, but would defer to state and local authorities, who already have charged four officers in connection with Floyd’s death.

The Trump administration has all but abandoned the broad police reform efforts of the Obama administration, and Barr has seemed in the past to take a hard-edge approach to backing law enforcement. In a December speech, he warned that communities that did not show respect to police risked losing their protection.

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Barr said Thursday his views had not shifted, and that he still believed the “overwhelming” number of police did not use excessive force.

Barr has mobilized all of the Justice Department’s law enforcement components — the FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Prisons and Drug Enforcement Administration — to help respond to the unrest in D.C., and each of their leaders also spoke Thursday.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal notably conceded that he could have better marked the special operations teams that have been spotted in D.C. with clear identification.

“I probably should have done a better job of marking them nationally as the agency,” he said. “Point is well taken.”

Wray stressed the unrest was not just about Floyd, but rather “all of those, over the years” who had their rights violated by law enforcement. He said the bureau was “not in any way trying to discourage peaceful protesters.”

“Nonviolent protests are signs of a healthy democracy, not an ailing one,” Wray said.

Barr said Tuesday and Wednesday had been more peaceful in D.C., and he suggested the federal response might soon slow. Though there were barriers still being erected outside the White House on Thursday morning, Barr said “after assessing the situation last night toward the end of the evening, or maybe early in the morning, I felt that we could afford to collapse our perimeter and eliminate some of the checkpoints and so forth and take a little bit of a more low-profile footprint.”