San Jose Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren grills Barr over federal reaction to protests
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren keeps track of time during meetings. Photo by Elizabeth Mendez.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Zoe Lofgren took Attorney General William Barr to task during a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss a range of issues related to President Donald Trump’s interactions with the Justice Department.

The San Jose Democrat told Barr she believed the Trump administration deployed federal troops to the protests in Portland, Ore., to distract the public from its failure to control the coronavirus pandemic.

“Millions of Americans have been infected, tens of thousands are dying and the president needs to divert from that failure,” she said. “…The playbook is to create the impression that there is violence, that he must send in federal troops and that the American people should be afraid of other Americans and trust the president.”

George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. His death sparked ongoing protests nationwide.

Lofgren said most demonstrators were nonviolent and that there was no need to dispatch federal troops. She said the presence of soldiers was only escalating the situation and causing more people to take to the streets.

The congresswoman added she was alarmed by reports the government was using cell-site simulators to collect cellphone information from protesters or others who might be nearby.

“What specific authority is the department using for these surveillance tools?” she asked.

Barr said he was unable to provide details or confirm if surveillance technology was being used. He said most of the federal government’s cyber activities generally were conducted by the FBI.

Lofgren argued the American people have a right to know if they were being spied on during protests. A cell-site simulator can obtain more than basic cell phone information, she said, it can capture the private conversations between two people.

“This is about the privacy of all Americans,” she said. “It’s all being violated for the president’s political purposes of trying to create a scene, create a reason (for the troops) and divert attention from the COVID failure.”

The hearing remained heated throughout its roughly five-hour duration. House Democrats grilled Barr on a variety of topics, including the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and whether the president’s associates have received preferential treatment from the Department of Justice.

“You have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, told Barr.

Throughout the hearing, Barr firmly defended himself and the administration.

Barr acknowledged the “horrible killing” of Floyd had understandably shaken the nation. But he objected to the notion most protesters were peaceful.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s death, violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims,” he said. “The current situation in Portland is a telling example. Every night for the past two months, a mob of hundreds of rioters has laid siege to the federal courthouse and other nearby federal property.”

Barr said many local officials and members of the media were unfairly blaming the federal government for the chaos when the protesters were the ones at fault.

“The most basic responsibility of government is to ensure the rule of law so that people can live their lives safely and without fear,” he said. “The Justice Department will continue working to meet that solemn responsibility.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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