Barr Defends Response to Virus in Stormy Twitter Session
WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr defended the Justice Department’s response to the pandemic on Friday in a rare online question-and-answer session that was marred by vitriolic criticism directed at him over the treatment of inmates in federal prisons ravaged by the coronavirus and other issues.
Mr. Barr was one of nearly two dozen law enforcement officials, including state attorneys general, who participated in a forum on Twitter to field questions about public safety and the coronavirus pandemic. But many people directed critiques and insults with the hashtag #AskAGBarr.
Some accused Mr. Barr of acting as President Trump’s personal lawyer, and others called for his resignation. Some users were critical of how Mr. Barr handled the Russia investigation, accusing him of misrepresenting the conclusions in the report before the public had a chance to read them. “Why are you covering up for the president who invited and welcomed election interference from a foreign power?” one asked.
Others accused him of failing to do enough to protect Mr. Trump and punish his perceived enemies, including Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who led the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
In the end, Mr. Barr answered only four questions, in a series of prerecorded videos, that totaled less than eight minutes. Two were about coronavirus-related fraud, one about federal prisons and another was about civil liberties.
Representative Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, asked Mr. Barr why the department and the Bureau of Prisons “refuse to release prisoners who pose ZERO threat to society despite the increasing number of deaths happening in federal prisons due to COVID-19?” The bureau has come under fire as the coronavirus has swept through the federal prison system and threatened to overwhelm its health care systems.
Mr. Barr said that the bureau took “the health and safety of our inmates very seriously,” and had moved to release nearly 5,000 prisoners to home confinement and had another 1,000 in the pipeline.
He listed policies that could potentially slow the release of inmates, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine period before release and checks to ensure that people had a place to go upon release.
Mr. Barr walked a health care consultant through the steps that the department had taken to set up task forces to combat coronavirus-related fraud, saying that it had worked with technology companies to take down websites and domains involved in fraud.
“We are also making arrests for people who are engaged in fraud,” he said.
He warned people not to share their personal information and explained how they could contact the F.B.I. if they believed they were victims of a fraud.
He also noted that local politicians had the right to curb freedoms to address the pandemic, but that they must “justify any restrictions as truly necessary” and ensure that they were not infringing on civil liberties like freedom of religion or speech.
“Now that the curve has been flattened,” Mr. Barr said, “it’s time to start rolling back some of these restrictions in an orderly and sensible way.”
The Justice Department did not say whether Mr. Barr intended to answer more than four questions, or how he hoped his engagement with Twitter would benefit the department.
Twitter recently hosted a similar day of question-and-answer sessions with governors and mayors. Celebrities and other public figures have also used the forum to connect directly with the public. Typical sessions last from 30 minutes to an hour, and in the past, officials have fielded 16 questions on average, according to the company.
“We were pleased to be able to participate so the public could hear directly from the Attorney General about how the department is protecting public safety and combating fraud,” said Ashley McGowan, a Justice Department spokeswoman.