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Democrats clashed angrily with Donald Trump’s attorney general on Tuesday, over the aggressive deployment of federal agents to US cities three months before a presidential election. William Barr faced a difficult grilling during a hearing in Congress that proved combative, contentious, and indicative of Washington’s bitter divide.

Democrats on the House judiciary committee pointed to the use of federal law enforcement to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, Washington, last month so Trump could stage a photo op, and a harsh crackdown on protests in Portland, Oregon.

“The president wants footage for his campaign ads, and you appear to be serving it up to him as ordered,” Jerry Nadler, the committee chairman, told Barr.

“You use pepper spray and truncheons on American citizens. You did it here in Washington. You did it in Lafayette Square. You expanded to Portland. Now you are projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives. Shame on you, Mr Barr. Shame on you.” The attorney general denied the interventions were motivated by Trump’s re-election.

“I just reject the idea that the department has flooded anywhere and attempted to suppress demonstrators,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, if you take Portland, the courthouse is under attack.

“The federal resources are inside the perimeter, around the courthouse defending it from almost two months of daily attacks where people march to the court, try to gain entrance and have set fires, thrown things, used explosives and injured police, including just this past weekend, perhaps permanently blinding three federal officers with lasers.”

Barr added: “We are on the defence. We’re not out looking for trouble.” Like so many other hearings of the Trump era, the session highlighted America’s debilitating polarisation. Barr sat expressionless as Nadler delivered a scathing opening statement.

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