House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Thursday slammed Attorney General William Barr for comparing coronavirus lockdowns in the US to slavery, saying the comments are “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You know, I think that that statement by Mr. Barr was the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful thing I’ve ever heard,” Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and its highest-ranking Black member, told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “It is incredible that (the) chief 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.”
Barr made the comparison during an event at Hillsdale College Wednesday after he was asked to explain the “constitutional hurdles for forbidding a church from meeting during Covid-19.”
“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 said as a round of applause came from the crowd.
The comparison from Barr stands out for its unique absurdity given both the history of slavery and the present reality of public health struggles to contain coronavirus. The lockdowns – which were implemented by states, not the federal government, early in the pandemic – aimed to save lives in the absence of a national robust testing and tracing system to contain the spread of the virus. Slavery was the systemic degradation, kidnapping and torture of human beings legally treated as property for centuries.
Three influential Senate Republicans also weighed in on the matter Thursday, with two of them offering a more muted criticism of Barr’s remarks, while another backed the attorney general outright.
“I don’t think that’s the analogy I would use,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told CNN. “I think what he’s trying to say is that … it’s been tough. We’ve had to shelter-in-place, our lifestyles has changed dramatically.”
“But no, I wouldn’t compare it to slavery – probably the only thing it compares to is (the flu pandemic of) 1918,” added Graham, who represents South Carolina.
Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who sits on the judiciary committee, similarly said he wouldn’t have used the same words as Barr, but noted he believes “some of the lockdowns have been arbitrary and inconsistent, and I think there are civil liberty concerns.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, however, had no issue with Barr’s comments, saying that the lockdowns have had “no precedent in modern times.” The Texas Republican added, “Washington Democrats have advocated massive and draconian shutdowns for political reasons not driven by medical science but their partisan desire to defeat the President in November.”
Clyburn, who represents South Carolina, also went on to blast President Donald Trump during his interview, saying both he and Barr are “absolutely tone-deaf to what it takes to be great leaders. They are driving this country into a direction that no one ever thought they would see in our lifetime.”
Clyburn also criticized Trump over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that if his administration is “going about the business of doing what is necessary to protect the people of this great country, we would be beyond this pandemic by now.”
“It would have been great if we had a national lockdown, so that people’s lives would be saved, and our children will be going on with their lives today, as they should be. But that is just what we’re up against here,” he said, referring to Trump’s opposition earlier this year to a strict nationwide lockdown.
This story has been updated to include comments from Republican lawmakers on Barr’s remarks.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Christina Carrega and Manu Raju contributed to this report.