(CN) — Drawing a sizable crowd to a conference room not far from the offices of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, House Republicans dialed in on the prosecutor Monday in a raucous hearing that its critics portrayed as political retribution.
The field hearing of the House Judiciary Committee at the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan came nearly two weeks after Bragg unsealed 34 criminal charges against former President Donald Trump in connection with alleged campaign finance violations during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's prosecution has brought backlash from allies within his political party, including the committee's chairman, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, who has already subpoenaed one of the former lawyer's from Bragg's office who was once at the head of the Trump investigation. Bragg in turn sued Jordan last week, calling the lawmaker's subpoena "an unprecedented, illegitimate interference" in the Trump case.
Not backing down, Jordan worked Monday to accuse Bragg of exploiting his office for political points while taking what Jordan called a “soft-on-crime approach” to crime in New York City.
“Here in Manhattan, the scales of justice are weighed down by politics,” Jordan said in his opening statement, which was streamed remotely. “For the district attorney, justice isn’t blind. It’s about looking for opportunities to advance a radical political agenda.”
Advocates and victims of violent crime in New York City who were invited to testify at the hearing added to the image of New York as crime infested, a state of affairs they blamed on the trend of sentencing leniency and lower incarceration rates.
Madeline Brame, chair of advocacy group the Victims Rights Reform Council and mother of a homicide victim, complained that some of her son’s murderers got away with a plea deal with the district attorney’s office. “If you take a life, you do life,” she argued. “There should be no plea deals for murder.”
Brame added that Bragg’s office had not provided her with adequate information and support as the victim of a violent crime. “We were treated like garbage,” she said.
Although Jordan had framed the judiciary panel hearing as part of what would be an ongoing series of field meetings aimed at analyzing crime rates nationwide, House Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of using crime as a fig leaf to continue their attack on Bragg for investigating former President Trump.
“We are here today in lower Manhattan for one reason and one reason only,” said New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, who is a ranking member. “The chairman is doing the bidding of Donald Trump. Committee Republicans designed this hearing to intimidate and deter the duly elected district attorney of Manhattan from doing the work his constituents elected him to do.”
Nadler argued that crime rates in Manhattan, including shootings and homicides, have come down recently compared with other states, including Ohio, Jordan’s home territory.
Jim Kessler, vice president of policy at center-left think tank Third Way, testified that New York City’s murder rate is 18% below the national average. He pointed to gun ownership as a major factor in the difference in crime rates between New York and other states.
“I don’t think any place in this country is really safe, because we’re awash in guns,” Kessler said, “but on average, New York City is safer than Ohio, Texas and many other places. I think No. 1 is gun ownership rates — gun ownership rates in red states tend to be about twice the gun ownership rates in blue states.”
Kessler acknowledged that poverty rates and accessible education were also factors.
Meanwhile, other House Democrats drilled down harder on Republicans’ motivations for holding a field hearing in Manhattan.
“This is a sham hearing,” Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson exclaimed. “It’s not about crime in New York; it’s an effort to ultimately suppress the prosecution of Donald Trump.”
Johnson questioned why Republicans are not supporting enhanced federal gun control laws if they are actually concerned about crime rates.
“If Republicans really wanted to stop violent crime, they would be in D.C. right now, working with Democrats to pass commonsense gun legislation,” the lawmaker said. “Instead, like jackbooted thugs, they’ve descended on New York City, using violent crime as their pretext.”
The objections from Johnson and other Democrats sparked outbursts on more than one occasion from those in attendance at the hearing. Jordan, struggling at times to maintain order, instructed police to eject one heckler from the building.
Congressman David Cicilline caused a particular stir when he asked whether the committee could move its hearing to Ohio, where he argued crime rates were worse than those of Manhattan. Jordan quickly overruled the Rhode Island Democrat.
“Please spare me this suggestion that this is about a sincere interest in finding solutions to crime,” Cicilline later said. “This is about your agenda to earn the admiration and support and good wishes of the former president of the United States.”
Committee Republicans fired back at Democrats’ complaints, insisting that the field hearing was primarily about victims and that Democrats were responsible for shifting the focus onto Trump’s indictment.
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz quoted New York City's own mayor, Eric Adams, who last year, in a complaint about bail-reform efforts, said the city's criminal justice system is “insane, it’s dangerous, it’s harmful and it’s destroying the fabric of our city.”
“My friends, the reason we are here in New York is because you have Democrats and you have citizens calling for some relief from this pain,” Gaetz said. “We are here not to use anyone, but to uplift the voices of brave people who are here to tell their story.”
New York Republican Elise Stefanik argued that her side of the aisle had not mentioned the former president once. “In addition to House Democrats belittling the victims here today, Democrats have politicized this hearing.”
Trump surrendered himself to authorities in Manhattan on April 4. The charges against him stem from multiple hush payments, including roughly $130,000 to an adult film actress in the waning days of the 2016 election. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, a key witness in Bragg’s inquiry, has already served jail time in connection with the payment.
Jordan and the judiciary committee have framed the testimony of Mark Pomerantz, a former lawyer in Bragg's office, as vital to congressional oversight of the investigation.Follow @@BenjaminSWeiss
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