WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr told federal prosecutors in a call last week that they should consider charging rioters and others who committed violent crimes at protests in recent months with sedition, according to two people familiar with the call.
The highly unusual suggestion to charge people with insurrection against lawful authority alarmed some on the call, which included U.S. attorneys around the country, said the people, who spoke on the condition they not be named describing Barr’s comments because they feared retribution.
The most extreme form of the federal sedition law, which is rarely invoked, criminalizes conspiracies to overthrow the government of the United States — an extraordinary situation that does not seem to fit the circumstances of the unrest in places like Portland, Ore., and elsewhere in response to police killings of Black men.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The attorney general’s advice dovetailed with his aggressive approach to confronting the unrest and staunch backing of law enforcement. He personally commanded federal forces trying to quell protests in Washington, told federal prosecutors to focus resources on combating violent crime and compared criticism of the police with attacks on Vietnam veterans while denying systemic racism in policing.
Barr has also emerged as a messenger of the president’s key plank in his re-election campaign: that only President Donald Trump can keep the country safe. Barr directly inserted himself into the presidential race in recent days to warn that the United States would be on the brink of destruction if Trump loses, telling a Chicago Tribune columnist that the United States could find itself “irrevocably committed to the socialist path” if Trump loses and that the country faced “a clear fork in the road.”
The president’s supporters say Barr’s approach is necessary to preserve order at a moment that threatens to spiral into violence and to tamp down unrest in cities where the local authorities will not.
About 93% of the protests in the United States this summer were peaceful, according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which monitors political upheaval worldwide.
But far-right and far-left groups, as well as looters and rioters, have seized on the protests to commit acts of violence, including deadly shootings — serious crimes that some federal prosecutors said could not be dismissed out of hand as anomalous, particularly as the threat from extremist groups grows.
Barr told federal prosecutors on the call that they needed to crack down on rioting, looting, assaults on law enforcement officers and other violence committed during the protests that have continued throughout the country since George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in May by police.
The attorney general mentioned sedition as part of a list of possible federal statutes that prosecutors could use to bring charges, including assaulting a federal officer, rioting, use of explosives and racketeering, according to the people familiar with the call.