TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last week, in Washington, D.C., in response to peaceful protests and to looting and arson, the Trump administration called in the National Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons. Active duty military were put on standby. On Monday, June 1, smoke, tear gas, pepper balls and, according to protesters, rubber bullets were used to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House just before President Trump's Bible photo-op.
Many protesters have called for defunding the police. On Sunday of this week, the Minneapolis City Council passed a veto-proof resolution to dismantle the city's police department. The council president, Lisa Bender, said, it's our commitment to end policing as we know it and recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe. My guest, Matt Zapotosky, covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.
In an article he co-wrote, the White House was described as being so fortified, it resembled a monarchical palace or authoritarian compound. We're going to talk about the role of Attorney General William Barr and how the Trump administration has handled the protests and how the Justice Department has been dealing with previous complaints about police brutality, police killings and systemic racism.
Matt Zapotosky, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MATT ZAPOTOSKY: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: So Minneapolis is planning to disband the police force and recreate something. William Barr has said, I think there's racism in the U.S. But I don't think that the law enforcement system is systematically racist. Is the Department of Justice doing anything to examine the George Floyd case?
ZAPOTOSKY: They are doing something to examine the George Floyd case in particular in that they've opened a civil rights investigation into the death. So that would look at whether the particular officers involved, who are already facing state charges, whether they violated federal civil rights law in George Floyd's death.
What they've not done is this broader pattern-or-practice investigation. And that would look well beyond George Floyd's death into the broader systems and policies and training in place at the Minneapolis Police Department to determine whether there's any sort of systemic discrimination there or other systematic problems.
GROSS: How is it being interpreted that the Justice Department is not looking into that?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, the Justice Department is under a lot of pressure to look into that. All of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have called for them to do that. Many civil liberties advocates have called for them to do that. These investigations aren't sort of a foolproof tool for forcing reform, right?
And like you see in Minneapolis, some local leaders want to go even further and defund or dismantle the police department and, you know, change it structurally there. But these pattern-or-practice investigations are something the Justice Department has used in previous administrations to force reforms of police department. So the Justice Department, this Justice Department, is under a lot of pressure to do that here.
GROSS: William Barr was tapped by Trump to direct the national response to the protests. Is that typically the attorney general's role?
ZAPOTOSKY: In this instance, I think his role grew beyond what you normally think of the attorney general doing. The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the country and is in command of all sorts of components - the FBI, the ATF, the DEA. But in this instance, we saw his authority kind of expanded. He was coordinating not just those agencies that are inside the Justice Department, but he had some role in commanding Department of Homeland Security agencies in the days of severe unrest in D.C. So that would, like, include the park police, right? That is a little abnormal.
And another thing that kind of happened here is Barr deployed to the streets agencies that you normally don't see doing this type of work - that are a part of the Justice Department normally, but normally, you don't see them on the street. And the best example of that is he brought into D.C. these Bureau of Prisons riot teams. Normally, what these guys do is when there is unrest inside of prisons, they kind of put a stop to that. But Bill Barr brought them out to the street. That is unusual.
Those guys are within his authority all the time, right? But you almost never see them on the street. And that's what happened here. And by his telling, these guys are specialists in quelling riots. And that's what he felt was going on. But also the DEA, the ATF, the FBI - everybody in his control kind of was descended on D.C. to put a stop to what he saw as violent unrest.
GROSS: You know, another question about the Bureau of Prisons - when people are trained to deal with a prison riot, that is really different than dealing with a protest about a police killing. I'm sure the training is probably different for that. Were there any objections within the Trump administration to bringing out people trained in prison riots to the streets of Washington?
ZAPOTOSKY: I don't know that you saw any internal objections, but you certainly saw some of the issues that come with that. These guys were on the street without any identifying information in some cases. So people would pass them, ask who they are. They wouldn't respond. And there would be no sort of visible marker on them to say they were Bureau of Prisons. The director of the Bureau of Prisons has sort of apologized that - for that and noted, as you just did, these guys normally work in institutional settings. They don't have to identify themselves. The inmates know who they are and why they're there.
They're not usually working on the street. And he said maybe he could've done a better job of marking them. That can be really important - right? - because if something goes wrong and there's video of an incident, you would want to know who is doing what in that video. Not only would you want them to be marked with an agency, but you might want them to be marked with some kind of identifying number so you can figure out who is responsible for what.
Also, when there are so many law enforcement agencies on the street, you want different police to know who the other police are if something goes wrong. So local law enforcement agencies need to know that they're dealing with legitimate federal law enforcement. And when you have someone just unmarked, that's harder to do.
GROSS: What were Customs and Border Protection and ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - doing there and the Transportation Security Administration?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. All of these people were kind of filling - I mean, filling what they normally do, but just in the context of protests. So like, you know, I'm thinking in particular of DEA. They gave DEA this broader authority to kind of enforce laws and collect intelligence, so they were doing that. But they were also doing security at federal buildings. And that's because, like, the people who normally do that might actually have to be deployed to do crowd control. That's what the riot teams were doing.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We're talking about the Trump administration's use of force against protesters last week. You spoke with a former Secret Service agent who objected to how the Secret Service was used back on Monday, June 1. What was his objection?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. Well, so on Monday, there was, you know, what has now been a widely condemned move to push back this crowd of largely peaceful demonstrators outside of the White House. These people had been gathering there for days. On Monday, the decision was made that, apparently, they were going to extend the perimeter. But by the time they actually moved to do that, the crowd had already gathered. So the police sort of moved in on the crowd. They sort of forcibly pushed them back with horses, using gas, using pepper balls.
And one former Secret Service agent told us that itself is just kind of unusual, particularly for the Secret Service. Officers kind of establish a line. They don't have a moving line; they keep a line there. And with protesters not pushing up on that, it was unusual to see law enforcement kind of be the aggressor in this instance.
GROSS: Your paper, The Washington Post, reported and you reported that it was William Barr who gave the order to push back the protesters outside the White House and that when Barr came to the scene on Monday, June 1, he said he was surprised to see that the perimeter hadn't been pushed back around the White House and Lafayette Square, and Barr said get it done. He has contradicted that. What's the Barr version of who gave the order and what Barr said?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, to be honest with you, it's still a little murky. And I would sort of dispute that he's contradicted that. His telling is just a little more complicated, although we told this, too. So by his telling, early on Monday, the decision is made - he makes the decision to extend the perimeter northward from the White House by one block. And at 2 p.m., he communicates that directive to the various law enforcement agencies.
And then it's about four hours later that he is spotted on the scene, talking to officials there on the ground. And we reported and other folks reported that, at that moment, he sort of shows up to survey the scene and is surprised to find that this isn't done. And he says something to the effect of get it done. The White House press secretary has given, essentially, that - an identical version of that.
On Friday, Barr talked to The Associated Press, and he added one little wrinkle to that, which was sort of yes, all that was true up to the moment he got there, but by the time he got there, the operation was already underway, I think is how The Associated Press framed it. And he didn't give the, quote-unquote, "tactical" order to move the crowd. I'm still trying to sort out with the Justice Department what exactly that means because they claim that they're not disputing what the White House press secretary said, which is that he told officers on the ground that the perimeter needs to be moved.
So I guess we're still trying to understand. Is he saying, well, look - it wasn't as if I was on a bullhorn saying gas them, you know, fire the bullets? This was sort of a more high-level command? Is he saying that he was just expressing his frustration, but that the operation was already under way, so it's not technically accurate to say he gave an order or at least not technically accurate to say he gave an order then, instead he had given that order four hours earlier?
What I think is notable about those comments is he seems to be trying to distance himself from what had occurred. It seems like there's some recognition that what had occurred - even though he has defended it, he seems to be trying to now distance himself a little bit from it.
GROSS: One way or another, he was seen on camera talking with law enforcement about 24 minutes before law enforcement moved in on the protesters.
GROSS: Now, Barr says that the protesters weren't cleared for the purposes of Trump's Bible photo op outside St. John's Church. What have you learned about that?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. He has tried to disconnect the move on protesters from the photo op. And, essentially, he has said, at 2 p.m., when I - you know, when I formally told law enforcement agencies this needs to happen, I didn't know - actually, he said he didn't know that Trump planned to speak, and it was after Trump spoke that he went over to the church. We do know - some of my White House colleagues have reporting from inside the White House that this was kind of an evolving plan that was only finalized very late in the day. So it is certainly plausible that, at 2 p.m., he did not know officially that the president was going to go across the street to the church after he spoke.
That said, the timing of when protesters were actually moved to when he went across the church, it's very close. This isn't several hours later; this is within an hour later. We - he has disputed that there is a connection between the move on protesters and the going across the street to the church. By his telling, this was always the plan, and the timing was just sort of coincidental, that there wasn't a connection there. But the timing is quite interesting. Everyone was able to watch live on television the crowd be moved, the president speak and then the president go right on over to the church, across the now-empty park and street.
GROSS: The Washington, D.C., police had not requested outside help, at least that's my understanding. What is the protocol for when a presidential administration has the authority to call in outside forces to assist local police in the district?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, you got to remember D.C. is not a state. It has many more federal police who operate here all the time, and there are various memorandums of understanding about what they can and can't do. Usually, they work very cooperatively together.
This is an unusual incident. In this incident, Barr has defended what federal police are doing, even when it has upset D.C., by saying, look - we have a right and a duty to protect federal buildings, so we have to control the perimeter around the White House and the Treasury, around various federal monuments. That's our jurisdiction. You see that sometimes just every day in D.C. Right? Like, the Capitol police handle things that happen in the Capitol. Park police handle things that happen on various federal lands or federal roads. And D.C. police control the rest, though they typically operate collaboratively. With the recent unrest here, the Trump administration contemplated trying to federalize the D.C. police. They ultimately didn't do that, but there has been, as you know, a lot of tension in this relationship that normally works quite cooperatively and well.
GROSS: What would it have meant to federalize the D.C. police?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, I guess it would have meant that the federal government would be giving commands to those guys, that they no longer would be taking orders from the mayor and the police chief. I guess I don't really know what would have happened to him. But that the federal government - Barr, you know, in this instance, because he had been given command of every federal law enforcement agency - would be, you know, able to deploy them in various places across the city.
GROSS: Well, we're seeing a lot of friction now between the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the Trump administration. Have you seen anything like that before?
ZAPOTOSKY: Certainly not to this scale. I mean, you know, painting the street with Black Lives Matter right outside the White House, projecting Black Lives Matter, you know, on a building near the White House and then sort of tweeting about it being Trump's night light. I mean, this is a very fraught relationship. I think the city, generally, has tried to agitate to expand its right to home rule, that, you know, the city leaders have consistently, in all the years I've lived here, wanted to become a state. But this is a moment of tension like I have not seen before.
GROSS: So on Sunday, the Trump administration gave orders to pull out the state National Guard from D.C. within 48 to 72 hours. What did they actually do last - a week ago?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, the National Guard were here helping do crowd control. You know, you saw them in front of the White House. You saw them out on the street. The National Guard had been deployed to help, you know, quell the unrest and not just the National Guard here in D.C. National Guardsmen from other states had been called in to quell the unrest. The Trump administration had also brought in some active-duty military in a sort of standby capacity, thinking they might be needed to be deployed on the streets. So that, you know, they have been out there operating, you know, doing crowd control with these protests.
GROSS: When Trump said that he was going to withdraw the National Guard, he offered as a reason that far fewer protesters had shown up than anticipated on Saturday night. I don't know exactly what that means since we have no idea what Trump anticipated.
ZAPOTOSKY: So I haven't been on the ground. Our very talented local staff has been handling that. By their telling, the crowds have numbered still in the many thousands. They have been much more peaceful. You haven't seen in recent days the sort of fire-setting that you saw - I guess it was, you know, more than a week ago now in Lafayette Park. But their size has not diminished at all.
I think, notably, you've even seen people out there when we've seen thunderstorms pass through the area, albeit less when that occurs. But it's not as if the protests have kind of died away. I think it's certainly fair to say some of the violent unrest has gone down. But per the account of our many reporters who were on the scene of these things, the size has not diminished.
GROSS: What were some of the things that Trump or William Barr have said in defense of the actions against protesters, things that they've said that are not accurate?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, particularly, referring to this Monday pushback, the controversial pushback of protesters outside of Lafayette Square, Barr has claimed that no tear gas was used. Our reporters and demonstrators were hit with a gas that induced pretty severe coughing and tearing of the eyes. So that does not seem to be true. Barr has claimed things were thrown in his direction. There is a video that shows him on the scene, and you don't see anything visible of that, though I can say that our reporters, at times, saw water bottles thrown. So that maybe rings as half true.
Barr has also made this very unusual claim that pepper spray is not at all a chemical, even though it is marketed that way to kind of defend police's use of pepper balls to clear the demonstrators. And just overall, he - this seems to be an effort to characterize this crowd on Monday as not peaceful, when in fact video shows they were. You know, certainly, there was a lot of yelling, right? But when the police moved in on them, you saw a line of people standing with their hands up. It was the police that moved towards them, not the other way around. And by Barr's telling - you know, Barr's telling just belies what happened.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post and has been writing about the department's role in the Trump administration's use of force against protesters in Washington, D.C., last week.
Do you think the Trump administration has set any precedents regarding the use of force, precedents that might be used in the future?
ZAPOTOSKY: Boy, that's a really interesting question. I mean, I think anytime you see a response to unrest, and particularly one that is this dramatic, there are lessons that are learned from it, both positive and negative, right? So I think, in some respect, we might look back at this in 10 years and decide some of the things that were done were a really bad idea and shouldn't be done again. I mean, when I look at all - the intense blowback to what happened in Lafayette Square, you think, boy, you know, future administrations likely will learn from that and decide not to do that.
But by the same token, they've sort of drawn a line to say, you know, this is OK. They have reinforced the idea that you can contemplate using the American military to enforce domestic laws. And those are precedents that certainly would play a role in the future the same way when we saw, you know, the American military called in related to the Rodney King riots, you know? That's a precedent that the Trump administration looked to in this instance. So in the future, I certainly think you'll see people looking back on what happened here, you know, with the massive deployment of every federal law enforcement agency, for example, and say, hey, maybe that's an idea we can contemplate again.
GROSS: You know what I've been wondering? Is the Trump administration - and I know you can't really answer this. But maybe you've heard talk. Is the Trump administration worried that the next big demonstrations will be against them, will be against the Trump administration or President Trump in particular? And I'm wondering if they're concerned about that and if they're thinking about, how do they protect themselves, the White House, if that happens?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. I think I can answer that. I mean, after you saw what happened in Lafayette Square, the demonstration really seemed to grow in size, one. And two, it also seemed to really center on the White House. And as a consequence, the White House really, you know, built up this near-fortress around the White House. So it does feel, to me - now, again, I have not been on the streets. Our very talented local folks have been on the streets. But it did feel, to me, optically, like, the demonstrations, at least here in D.C., a part of them became about President Trump and their response.
Of course, the main motive, still, police violence, what happened to George Floyd. But here in D.C., it did feel like some of the demonstration became about President Trump. And while I don't know that this speaks exactly to your question, there was some internal hand-wringing about what happened outside Lafayette Square with that now-infamous photo-op. I think some advisers internally have expressed to our reporters and to other White House reporters they now realize that was a really bad idea that could hurt them politically.
GROSS: I want to quote something in an article that you co-wrote in The Washington Post about how the White House was "transformed into a veritable fortress - the physical manifestation of Trump's vision of law-and-order domination over the millions of Americans who've taken to the streets to protest racial injustice. The White House is so heavily fortified that it resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands." Do you know if that's the image that Trump wants to give?
ZAPOTOSKY: Certainly he wants to give this law-and-order image, right? If you think back to his inauguration, he gives this very dark speech where he uses the phrase American carnage, talks about backing law enforcement. That very day, the White House posts online these kind of pillars of his administration. And one is, like, specifically about not coddling the looter and the rioters.
So that image of strength is certainly one that he wants, you know? Does he like being compared to a monarch? I don't know that I know the answer to that. But he certainly has leaned into the idea that he is the law-and-order president cracking down on the violence. He apparently sees that as a winning political strategy.
GROSS: William Barr has said that many protesters have been peaceful. And he blamed extremist agitators for exploiting the situation. And he said the agitators have a variety of different political persuasions, but the only group he actually named was ANTIFA, which is an antifascist group, but it is associated with the very far left as opposed to the very far right.
But there's been a lot of talk that some of the people responsible for acts of violence were actually from far-right groups who would like to see just chaos. And some of them would even like to see a civil war in America. Some of these far-right groups are white supremacist groups. So I'm wondering what you've been hearing about investigations into who is responsible for creating some of the chaos and violence that we have seen?
ZAPOTOSKY: They've charged now, federally, dozens of people with various violent acts connected to the protest. Sometimes it's because the people possess or try to distribute Molotov cocktails, other times it's because they cross state lines to riot. And I have to say, of the cases that I've looked at, the vast majority seem to be these sort of one-off - I don't even know what you would call them. They're not any - part of any organized group. They just seem to be personally intent on inciting mayhem for mayhem's sake. That seems to be the majority of them.
They have charged at least three people who were connected to this far-right group called the boogaloo movement. The attorney general, though - even though he has conceded, look; there are a lot of different ideologies driving the violent element at these protests, the only thing he names is ANTIFA. And that's the thing that the president has seized on, right?
But ANTIFA, it's not even quite right to say it is a group if you're thinking of a group in terms of one with a national sort of structure. It's more an ideology, just a far-left ideology. There are some ANTIFA groups in various cities, though, they're quite small. The Justice Department has said that some of the people that they're questioning in connection with violence identify as ANTIFA. But it's hard to even know what that means. You know, I see people post on Facebook, friends of mine - or acquaintances mine, I should say - you know, post, like, a picture of World War II and say, look; the original ANTIFA, because the phrase sort of stands for anti-fascist.
So you know, what critics say the administration is doing here is trying to blame this nebulous, left-leaning force, to suggest that that's really behind these protests - or the violence at these protests. And that's just not true. I mean, one, these protests are driven by very real concern about police violence against black people. And two, while it is true that there's some level of outside agitation and violence that can, at times, infiltrate these things, it's not like this is just coming from the left.
GROSS: My guest is Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We're talking about Attorney General William Barr's role in the Trump administration's response to the protests.
The Trump administration considered using the Insurrection Act. What is it? And how has it been used in the past?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. The Insurrection Act is this law that essentially gives the president the authority to deploy active duty military to enforce domestic laws. I think most people have this concept in their head that the American military can't be used to enforce domestic laws, and that's generally true. There's another law called the Posse Comitatus Act that prevents them from doing that.
But the Insurrection Act spells out some exceptions. And it has been used in the past at moments of unrest like this. So it's been - it was used during the civil rights movement. Most recently, it was used when William Barr was last attorney general in 1992 to suppress some unrest in Los Angeles related to the beating of Rodney King. So it's this law that would let the president deploy the American military to the streets if he wanted to do that.
GROSS: But he didn't use the act. Do you know why he considered it and then didn't use it?
ZAPOTOSKY: Ultimately, he didn't use it. By Bill Barr's telling, by the secretary of defense's telling, they considered this a sort of last resort, extreme measure. I think the secretary of defense has come out and publicly said he opposed invoking this act. And the reason is, you know, we were in a moment where - of great tension between police, the military and the American citizenry.
When Trump threatened to deploy the military to the streets of the country, there was intense blowback, people saying that the military was essentially being weaponized against its own citizens. You only take this step in extreme, extreme cases. Ultimately, President Trump chose not to, though, troops were sort of ready to go. They were here on standby. But, you know, in the end, some of the violence decreased. And the president chose not to do it.
GROSS: Barr said at an award ceremony for policing in December that communities have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. And if communities don't give that support and respect, they may find themselves without the police protection they need. How was that interpreted?
ZAPOTOSKY: This was sort of a remarkable statement that he made. And it seemed to be suggesting, like, look; you better back police or the police won't be there to protect you. And it's just a remarkable assertion - right? - like, the threat that police protection will be pulled if they're not adequately respected. So this attorney general and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, have taken this tack of the Justice Department needs to, quote, unquote, "back the blue."
We shouldn't be involved in forcing them to reform or investigating them or second-guessing them. We need to support them because we feel, you know, they aren't being supported by residents. And this was sort of a dramatic example of that, of Barr saying, I don't think police are being appropriately respected. And if this continues, look; maybe they won't be there for you.
GROSS: What has the Justice Department done or decided not to do to investigate police departments where they have been accused of systematic racism?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, the Justice Department and the Trump administration has abandoned a number of sort of systemic reform efforts that we saw in the Obama administration, the most notable of those is these pattern-or-practice investigations. So what those are is the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division would go in and broadly examine a police department, not just an individual incident, but all of the policies and practices at a police department that might be discriminatory.
And then what they would do is present a typically scathing report of their findings to that department. And they would get into a court-enforceable - what's called a consent decree - where the department would agree to reforms and agree - and a court would make sure that they carried them out. The Trump administration has just not done that. I think they've done one pattern-or-practice investigation all of the administration. The Obama administration did 25 just of local law enforcement agencies.
They've also - you know, they had this other thing called the COPS Office, which had sort of a more voluntary process called collaborative reform, where they wouldn't have a court get involved. But the Justice Department would work with police departments to create some plan to, you know, reform. The Trump administration says, we're not going to do that. The COPS Office can still give grants and that sort of thing. But it's not going to help, you know, with these kind of systemic reforms that civil liberties advocates and others have called for. The Trump administration has just taken a completely different tack.
GROSS: Well, you know, in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed in the hands of police, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would investigate not just Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, but the entire Ferguson Police Department. What was the outcome? Did it amount to substantive change?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, it did produce a very long, scathing report. And the city, after a lot of tense negotiation, ultimately signed a court-enforceable agreement to force reforms. And you saw that not just in Ferguson, but in lots of cities across the country - in Baltimore, for example, I think down in New Orleans. The record of these things, I have to say, though, is somewhat mixed. So The Washington Post back in 2015 studied a lot of these agreements. And it is true that they generally forced policy changes, they forced equipment upgrades, that kind of thing. But if you measured them just on use of force, like did police's use of force get reduced, the record there was a lot more mixed.
So civil liberties advocates, I think, would concede these things aren't a silver bullet. They don't magically solve all of the problems overnight. I don't think they've solved all of Ferguson's problems or all of Baltimore's problems. But they're one tool that helped force some reform. And they're a tool that the administration now just isn't using.
GROSS: So Barr did organize on the president's orders a new national commission to study issues in law enforcement, such as training and data collection. But that's been controversial. How come?
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. So this is the thing that he has pointed to as his police reform effort. But civil liberty advocates right when that thing was convened pointed out this is all law enforcement people, you know? A lot of times when you think of a commission, you think of it having kind of a variety of people from diverse backgrounds with various perspectives. You might see some police chiefs, some defense attorneys, some civil liberties advocates, maybe some community activist types. This was all police officials. They did have a meeting about civil liberties concerns, although I think it was - gosh, I don't want to misspeak, but it was not among the first four meetings that they had.
Civil liberties advocates have actually sued over this group, saying that it's not representative as it needs to be. So, you know, this Justice Department would say, well, look; we are studying issues in policing, and this commission will certainly look at some of the concerns that people have now. But civil liberties advocates feel like no, this is just sort of lip service, and it's only police officials who are discussing this. You can't just have their perspective. You need some of ours.
GROSS: Have investigations been proposed into the Trump administration's handling of protesters last week?
ZAPOTOSKY: Oh, absolutely. I think lawmakers are already investigating, so to speak, requesting information on what happened outside of Lafayette Square. So definitely there is an intense desire among lawmakers to know what happened and to, you know, conduct their oversight role.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Matt Zapotosky. He covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. We're talking about the Trump administration's use of force against protesters last week.
So much of American's attention has been focused on the pandemic and on the protests against George Floyd's killing. What else has Attorney General William Barr been up to? Because a lot of people are not paying attention to the rest of the news right now because the pandemic and the protests are so consuming. I mean, that's where so many of us have our attention focused.
ZAPOTOSKY: Yeah. Well, and I think Attorney General Barr has his attention largely focused on those issues, too. You know, his staff has told us in recent days that he's taken an extremely hands-on role in managing the police response to these protests. But he's also still involved in some efforts involving cases of interest to President Trump. So, you know, as all this has been going on - this was really before a lot of the unrest we've seen, but during the pandemic, he was personally involved in the Justice Department's move to abandon the prosecution of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who, in 2017, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with a Russian diplomat but then changed defense teams, went on the attack against his case and won a sympathetic ear in Attorney General Barr.
I would say that did get a lot of attention, even amid all the news, and it's been quite controversial. You know, I think critics see this as the attorney general just helping the friend of a president. It's pretty unusual to have someone plead guilty, admit multiple times in court they did wrong, and then the Justice Department to say actually, we can't pursue that case anymore.
GROSS: What are some of the other issues in which Barr has been accused of siding with the president as opposed to siding with standard legal procedures and legal judgments?
ZAPOTOSKY: Well, the Flynn case that I just mentioned is a big one. If you go back to the sentencing of Roger Stone - this is another longtime associate of President Trump, who was convicted at a trial of lying to Congress in connection with its investigation of Russian interference in the election - Bill Barr personally intervened in that case to reduce the sentencing recommendation that career prosecutors wanted to give. That was a pretty unusual move.
Career prosecutors wanted to recommend a sentence within these things called the federal sentencing guidelines. That's almost always what the Justice Department does. Bill Barr came over top and said no, in this instance, we don't want to do that, after they had already made a recommendation. So that would be one example.
House Democrats would say he has taken this posture towards them of complete stonewalling, which is unusual for the Justice Department. Typically, when House Democrats want records or information, they kind of work through this negotiation with the Justice Department to get materials they want. House Democrats say Bill Barr has just not wanted to engage in that process. He just won't turn over materials. And they see that as protecting President Trump at the expense of the norm.
So there are a lot of examples that Barr's critics point to - helping the president's friend, protecting the president from transparency, now sort of expanding - you know, showing the president's great authority to use the National Guard, military and law enforcement to respond to unrest in the district.
GROSS: You've been covering how the Trump administration has used law enforcement to deal with the protesters in Washington. Before covering the Justice Department, you covered Prince George's County for The Washington Post, and you covered policing, like, local policing. What are some of the things you learned covering local policing that are helping you in covering the protests now and the Trump administration's response to the protests?
ZAPOTOSKY: You know, that's a great question. I've been actually thinking a lot about my time in Prince George's County and even covering police shootings. And I think when I covered that, videos sort of weren't quite as prolific as they are now. And I think back to some of the police shootings I cover, where witnesses or the family members of someone shot would say one thing and police would say another thing. And there just wasn't quite the level of unrest.
And I've sort of reflected and wondered, what happened if - what would have happened if there were videos of all these incidents that I reported on that could have, you know, put to rest any dispute? And was the account that I was often given from police - was that accurate? Because I think you've seen here - as unrest has swept the country, you've seen example after example of police saying one thing and a video showing another thing.
I've also thought a lot about that in the context of some of these defund or abolish the police efforts. I think some of those might be a little bit of a misnomer. That language - though it seems to suggest that means we just won't have police - what the people using that language say is no, no, no, it would just change police functions. You know, police wouldn't be involved in things other than basic law enforcement. They shouldn't be involved in response to mental health crises and that sort of thing.
And I have to say, I remember covering police and police officers complaining to me, look - we have to respond to everything, and we always get people at their worst moments. So we get in the middle of domestic disputes. We get in the middle of mentally ill people who don't have a home and are on the street. And we have to handle that, you know.
So I think it's interesting to see this now become a national conversation about, you know, are police being asked to do too much? Are we, you know, giving police too much responsibility and authority? And I think back to some of the conversations I had with police then and think, you know, would you really oppose if we gave some of your authority away but also, you know, gave you less responsibility? I don't know the answer to that.
GROSS: Matt Zapotosky, thank you so much for talking to us.
ZAPOTOSKY: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Matt Zapotosky covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how disproportionate use of force can turn a peaceful protest violent and how before George Floyd's death, Minneapolis failed to remove bad officers. My guest will be Jamiles Lartey, who reports on the justice system for The Marshall Project and was part of a team at The Guardian that tracked police violence in America. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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