Attorney General William Barr argued Wednesday that coronavirus-related lockdown orders were surpassed only by slavery as the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in the nation’s history.
The remarks from the attorney general came during an event hosted by Hillsdale College, where Barr delivered a speech defending his intervention in high-profile Justice Department cases and comparing career prosecutors to preschoolers.
“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said during a question-and-answer session following his remarks.
Barr also used the appearance to address the widespread criticism he has faced as the nation’s top law enforcement officer for allegedly interfering in criminal cases on behalf of President Donald Trump’s political interests.
The attorney general specifically attacked Justice Department attorneys who had made prosecutorial decisions with which he disagreed.
“Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren’t any,” Barr said, according to a Justice Department copy of his remarks. “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency.”
Barr asserted that “individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” and charged that “smart, ambitious lawyers have sought to amass glory by prosecuting prominent public figures since the Roman Republic.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows defended the attorney general Thursday morning amid fallout from Barr’s remarks, saying the Trump administration was working to “restore the integrity to the Department of Justice and the FBI.”
“When we talk about setting priorities, Bill Barr is exactly right. We need to make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law,” Meadows told Fox News in an interview.
“But, unfortunately, some in — some would say it’s the deep state. I would just say that it’s actually the swamp that continues to try to make sure a political agenda is driven instead of law and order and justice for all,” he added.
House Minority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), however, fiercely condemned Barr’s comment likening coronavirus restrictions to slavery, calling it one of the “most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I’ve ever heard.”
“It is incredible the chief law enforcement officer in this country would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives. Slavery was not about saving lives. It was about devaluing lives,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, told CNN in an interview.
Clyburn also noted that the Trump administration never announced a nationwide lockdown order, instead deferring to state and local governments to impose a patchwork of stay-at-home mandates and other measures limiting Americans’ movements.
“It would have been great if we had a national lockdown, so that people’s lives would be saved and our children would be going on with their lives today as they should be,” Clyburn said.
“But that is just what we’re up against here,” he continued. “Two people in charge of running the law enforcement of this country who are absolutely tone-deaf to what it takes to be great leaders. They are driving this country into a direction that no one ever thought they would see in our lifetime.”
The attorney general has faced his most significant scrutiny from former Justice Department officials and legal observers for his interference in the cases of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime former political adviser.
Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
The Justice Department abandoned its prosecution of Flynn in May after the release of FBI records that disclosed details about the origins of the bureau’s criminal case against him and suggested internal deliberation over how to approach the politically explosive investigation.
In a motion that was not signed by any career prosecutors, who withdrew from the case, the department argued the Flynn probe lacked an investigative predicate and was therefore invalid.
Stone was convicted on all charges last November for impeding congressional and FBI investigations into connections between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign. Federal prosecutors argued in February he should be sent to prison for roughly seven to nine years.
But after Trump criticized the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in a tweet, the Justice Department submitted a revised filing that offered no specific term for Stone’s sentence but stated that the prosecutors’ initial proposal “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.”
The four government attorneys who had shepherded Stone’s prosecution then withdrew from the case in protest, and Trump personally congratulated Barr for “taking charge” of the matter.