Mr. Barr told federal prosecutors on the call that they needed to crack down on rioting, looting, assaults on law enforcement officers and other violence committed during the protests that have continued across the country since George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed by the police in May.
Mr. Barr mentioned sedition as part of a list of possible federal statutes that prosecutors could use to bring charges, including assaulting a federal officer, rioting, use of explosives and racketeering, according to the people familiar with the call. Justice Department officials included sedition on a list of such charges in a follow-up email.
After Mr. Barr spoke, Richard P. Donoghue, a top aide to the deputy attorney general, interjected to note that some of the U.S. attorneys on the call worked in districts where violence during protests was less common, and that the federal prosecutors may not need to use tools as aggressive as sedition charges.
Mentioning that he had visited Portland, Ore., Mr. Donoghue also assured the prosecutors that the Justice Department would support all efforts to crack down on violence.
“If Barr was saying that if you have a sedition case, then bring it, that is fine,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “But if he is urging people to stretch to bring one, that is deeply dangerous.”
The most extreme form of the federal sedition law, which is rarely invoked, criminalizes conspiracies to overthrow the government of the United States — an extraordinary situation that does not seem to fit the circumstances of the riots and unrest in places like Portland, Ore., and elsewhere in response to police killings of Black men.
The wording of the federal sedition statute goes beyond actual revolutions. It says the crime can also occur anytime two or more people have conspired to use force to oppose federal authority, hinder the government’s ability to enforce any federal law or unlawfully seize any federal property — elements that might conceivably fit a plot to, say, break into and set fire to a federal courthouse.