Democrats' most senior black lawmaker, Jim Clyburn, called attorney general Bill Barr 'God awful' and 'tone deaf' Thursday after the top law enforcement officer compared lockdown orders to slavery.
The House Democratic leader told CNN's New Day that Barr's comparison was 'tone deaf'.
Barr spoke out at the Constitution Day celebration at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Wednesday, suggesting the measures put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 were on par with an alternative to being put in prison and just one step down from the restrictions slaves endured.
'You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest.
'Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,' Barr told a crowd which applauded in response, CNN reported.
Barr likened the pandemic to life for Black people before slavery was abolished after he was asked to explain 'constitutional hurdles for forbidding a church from meeting during Covid-19.'
On Thursday morning Clyburn, a key Joe Biden ally, said: 'That statement by Mr. Barr was the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I've ever heard.
'It is incredible that the top 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. This pandemic is a threat to human life.'
He called Barr and Donald Trump 'a God-awful duo' and said they had failed the American people on the virus.
Democratic figures including Bill Clinton's former press secretary Joe
Lockhart and former California senator Barbara Boxer attacked Bill Barr,
while liberal law professor Laurence Tribe called him 'an evil fool'
Barr was attacked by other Democratic figures and by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, a leading liberal thinker, for the comparison.
Other critics said he was ignoring attacks on civil liberties including the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and the Trail of Tears.
In his speech, Barr blasted state governors, claiming they were using their executive powers to prevent businesses from reopening and people from returning to work.
'Most of the governors do what bureaucrats always do, which is they ... defy common sense,' Barr said. 'They treat free citizens as babies that can't take responsibility for themselves and others.
'We have to give business people an opportunity, tell them what the rules are you know the masks, which rule of masks, you had this month... and then let them try to adapt their business to that and you'll have ingenuity and people will at least have the freedom to try to earn a living.'
Barr, 70, also called it 'nonsense' for officials to say they were 'following science' and said doctors are not some kind of 'grand seer.'
More than 6 million American have been infected with the virus and 196,000 have died from COVID-19.
Barr's speech came on the same day it was revealed he told federal prosecutors that protesters demonstrating for reforms of a justice system that has been compared to modern-day slavery, could be charged with sedition.
The Wall Street Journal said Barr told federal district attorneys in a conference call last week that a law against plotting to overthrow the US government was among charges they could use against participants when protests turn violent.
The WSJ reported that he divulged details of two statutes that could help bring about the charges.
In order to prove sedition, they would have to prove imminent danger to government officials or agents as part of a conspiracy. However without the plot it can fall under expressing violent anti-government sentiment under the First Amendment.
Another statute could bring federal charges on someone who obstructs law enforcement responding to unrest.
CNN and the New York Times confirmed the recommendation by Barr.
Two people on the call said Barr has asked whether charges could be brought on Seattle's Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing people to create a police-free zone.
Barr said on Wednesday that the Supreme Court has determined the executive branch has 'virtually unchecked discretion' on whether to go ahead with a prosecution.
'The power to execute and enforce the law is an executive function altogether,' Barr said at an event in Washington celebrating the Constitution. 'That means discretion is invested in the executive to determine when to exercise the prosecutorial power.'
University of Alabama law professor, Jenny Carroll, told the WSJ: 'If you start charging those people, even if you don't get a conviction, it may make people think twice before going out to exercise their right to free speech.'
President Donald Trump has called for the Justice Department to heavily punish the protesters, whom he and Barr have labeled extreme left anarchists.
While protest-related crimes usually bring only local charges, under Barr's guidance district attorneys, federal prosecutors have charged more than 200 demonstrators with crimes that bring heftier penalties.
Barr used the Hillsdale speech and questions after it to defend his position.
Asked about the report on Barr, Trump said his government will treat demonstrators toughly.
'If you have a violent demonstration, yes, we will put it down very very quickly,' he said, adding: 'And I think the American public wants to see that.'
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, about 93 percent of protests this summer were peaceful.
Such a sedition charge has been used with extreme rarity and the most recent example, a case brought against a Michigan armed militia group, failed in 2012 due to weak and 'circumstantial evidence'.
Barr also used the speech to blast his own staff, claiming they 'headhunt' high-profile targets and assert that he is the the sole authority on federal prosecutions.
Barr's comments on Wednesday amounted to a striking, and unusual, rebuke of the thousands of prosecutors who do the daily work of assembling criminal cases across the country.
Rejecting the idea that prosecutors should have final say in cases that they bring, Barr described them instead part of the 'permanent bureaucracy' and said they were in need of supervision from 'detached,' politically appointed leaders who are accountable to the president and Congress.
'Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,' Barr said. 'Subjecting their decisions to review by detached supervisors ensures the involvement of dispassionate decision-makers in the process.'
Barr's comments appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to the fracas that arose ahead of the February sentencing of Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump.
In that case, Barr overruled the sentencing recommendation of the trial team in favor of a lighter punishment. The move prompted the entire trial team to quit before Stone's sentencing hearing.
Barr was accused of undue intervention on behalf of an associate of the president, but in his speech Wednesday night, he bristled at the idea that it was even possible for an attorney general to be accused of meddling in the affairs of a department that he leads.
'Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees´ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren't any,' Barr said.
He added: '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. Good leaders at the Justice Department - as at any organization - need to trust and support their subordinates. But that does not mean blindly deferring to whatever those subordinates want to do.'
He also took a veiled swipe at one of the senior members of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation team, suggesting that one of the reasons why the Trump administration was more successful than the Obama administration before the Supreme Court was because the latter had a member of the Mueller team writing briefs.
That appeared to be a reference to Michael Dreeben, a highly respected lawyer who argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court for Democratic and Republican administrations before his retirement from the solicitor general's office.