Justice Dept forced to correct AG Bill Barr's latest tall tale

“To give you an idea of what’s possible, the FBI went in very strong into Kansas City and within 2 weeks we’ve had 200 arrests,” Barr said, despite reality
Image: Attorney General William Barr arrives for a news conference at the White House on April 1, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr arrives for a news conference at the White House on April 1, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

It's not exactly a secret that Donald Trump and his team are eager to steer the national conversation toward a focus on violent crime. To that end Attorney General Bill Barr held a press conference yesterday to talk up Operation Legend, a federal anti-crime initiative, which Barr said had resulted in hundreds of arrests in Kansas City.

“Just to give you an idea of what’s possible, the FBI went in very strong into Kansas City and within two weeks we’ve had 200 arrests,” Barr said.

This came as quite a surprise to many people in Kansas City, who had no idea what the attorney general was talking about. As the Kansas City Star reported, the Justice Department found it necessary to correct Barr soon after.

Speaking with McClatchy after the Wednesday event, the senior Justice Department official clarified that the 200 figure included arrests dating back to December 2019. It also included, the official said, both state and FBI arrests in joint operations. The official said Barr was referring to the number of arrests made in the city since the launch of Operation Relentless Pursuit, a precursor effort to Operation Legend that surged federal agents in U.S. cities facing crime waves, including Kansas City.

This isn't to say the new Operation Legend has been completely pointless. One young man, Monty W. Ray, was arrested by federal law enforcement late last week and is now facing drug and firearm charges. The accused is apparently the first criminal complaint made in connection with Barr's new crackdown.

This led the Star to add, "Officials in Kansas City said they had no knowledge of any number arrests close to Barr’s figure. When asked just before 11 a.m. Tuesday if there had been any additional arrests since Ray, Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City, said 'No, not that I’m aware of.'”

That makes it sound as if Barr, after claiming there'd been 200 arrests, was off by 199.

The same article quoted former U.S. Attorney Stephen Hill Jr., who prosecuted cases in western Missouri, saying, “At a time when confidence and trust in the Department of Justice and federal law enforcement is at a low point, the last thing you want is to have someone suggest you are padding your numbers to make a political point or that the Attorney General is unaware of the situation on the ground in Kansas City. Either one hurts the effort and the public confidence it needs to be successful.”

As the White House does its very best to keep this issue foremost on voters' minds in the coming weeks and months, it's worth keeping in mind that the administration's credibility on criminal justice issues is woeful -- and getting worse.