I am no stranger to awful congressional hearings.
Over the years, I’ve sat at the press table dozens of times, watching lawmakers squawk and squabble, fuss and feud, and generally make fools of themselves.
I’ve endured the endless grandstanding when the cameras are on, droning duplication as members cover the same ground, and unabashed partisanship.
But the House hearing with William Barr shattered all the records.
It was an embarrassment to the Democrats, an embarrassment to Congress, and an embarrassment to the country.
The Democratic members were so determined to bait and badger the attorney general that they barely let him speak.
Whatever you think of Barr, whatever you think of the Democrats, whatever you think of the substantive issues being debated, the Judiciary Committee session was a train wreck.
The giveaway came at the very beginning, when the chairman, Jerry Nadler, finished his remarks by telling the AG: “You are projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives. Shame on you, Mr. Barr.”
An equally telling moment occurred nearly five hours later, when Barr--who waited an hour for the hearing to start because Nadler had been in a car accident--asked for a five-minute break, noting he’d had no lunch. Nadler balked. “You’re a class act,” Barr said. The chairman then relented.
Now Republicans have conducted their share of hyperpartisan hearings. And many of them rolled over for Barr on Tuesday, politely beseeching him to please tell the committee why such and such an allegation against him was obviously false.
But for the majority party, it was a chance to challenge Barr on issues ranging from policing of urban riots to the Justice Department’s treatment of Trump allies. But they were mostly interested in the sound of their own voices.
I was curious whether the major papers would airbrush out the Democratic tactics and just excerpt the tightest exchanges. The Washington Post came closest to capturing the absurdity of the “acrimonious” session:
“Lawmakers spent months seeking Barr’s testimony on a host of issues related to the Trump administration’s interactions with the Justice Department. With the attorney general finally seated at the witness table, Democrats mostly made speeches or talked over him as he attempted to answer their questions, seemingly squandering any chance of getting new information or an admission out of him.
“‘This is a hearing; I thought I was the one who was supposed to be heard,’ Barr said in exasperation.”
A typical exchange involved Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse:
NEGUSE: I have another question for you, on June 19, 2020
BARR: No, actually I need to answer that question.
NEGUSE: Mr. Attorney General, you did answer the question.
BARR: No, you said under penalty of perjury. I’m going to answer the damn question, okay?
Barr’s side of the story, when he was able to get a few words out, was that he did no political favors for the president and thought, for instance, that Roger Stone should go to prison.
“I’m supposedly punishing the president’s enemies and helping his friends,” he told Nadler. “What enemies have I indicted?”
Barr also defended the use of federal agents in cities like Portland, citing injuries to those trying to subdue the rioters and saying “when people resist law enforcement, they’re not peaceful.”
But Republicans were hardly passive. Congressman Jim Jordan played a video montage showing correspondents talking about peaceful protests, followed by scenes of violence and mayhem.
CNN’s Jake Tapper demanded an apology from Jordan, saying his reporters “accurately described the protests as peaceful and then often exploding into something else, including violence at night...They weren’t calling violent protests peaceful,” adding that Jordan “did a disservice to the American people and you did a disservice to the truth.”
The Ohio lawmaker responded on Fox that “you had two reporters in that video saying these are peaceful protests while there’s a building burning in the background, for goodness sake.”
The Barr hearing, coming three months before the election, may have been many things, but it was not what Congress calls oversight.