Garland seeks to draw sharp contrast with Trump-era DOJ
Attorney general nominee Merrick Garland vowed Monday to steer clear of politics as the country’s top lawyer, seeking to turn the page from the Trump-era Justice Department.
Garland — who testified nearly five years after Senate Republicans blocked his Supreme Court nomination — pledged to confront domestic terrorism and racial inequalities while rebuilding the department as he outlined his vision during an hours-long confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
With confirmation on the Senate floor expected as soon as next week, Garland will take charge of the Justice Department at a critical moment. On Monday, the federal appeals court judge sought to reassure senators in both parties, who voiced concerns that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has become politicized after being buffeted by political scandals.
“I would not have taken this job if I thought that politics would have any influence over prosecutions and investigations,” Garland said. “I am the United States lawyer. I will do everything in my power … to fend off any effort by anyone to make prosecutions or investigations partisan or political in any way.”
But a myriad of political and legal headaches await Garland on the other side of confirmation, including oversight of investigations involving the Russia probe and Hunter Biden and a sprawling probe of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Still, it’s a familiar area for Garland, who investigated and prosecuted the Oklahoma City bombing in his previous role as a U.S. attorney. He told senators on Monday that the investigation into the Capitol riot, which left five people dead, would be his “first briefing” as attorney general.
“I think this was the most heinous attack on the democratic processes that I’ve ever seen and one that I never expected to see in my lifetime. One of the very first things I will do is get a briefing on the progress of this investigation,” Garland said.
But he acknowledged that the department’s work will need to expand beyond the events of Jan. 6 and into the root causes of domestic terrorism and insurrectionist groups.
“I don’t think that this is necessarily a one-off,” Garland said, noting DOJ’s work prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan and his own experience overseeing prosecutions tied to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
“I intend to make sure that we look more broadly to look at where this is coming from, what other groups there might be that could raise the same problem in the future,” he added.
Garland said he was in lockstep with FBI Director Christopher Wray, who in September testimony to Congress said racially motivated violent extremism accounts for the bulk of the bureau’s work on domestic terrorist threats.
The Justice Department and FBI are more than a month into a probe of the Capitol attack. So far, the government has identified more than 250 people involved in the melee, and Garland signaled the probe may still be in its early phases.
“We begin with the people on the ground and we work our way up to those who are involved and further involved and we will pursue these leads, wherever they take us,” he told senators.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) appeared to signal toward former President Trump and his allies when he encouraged Garland to “look upstream” to individuals not physically at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“In the same way that, in a drug case, you would look upstream from the street dealers to try to find the kingpins and that you will not rule out investigation of funders, organizers, ringleaders, or aiders and abettors who were not present in the Capitol,” Whitehouse said.
The exchange underscored how Trump loomed over the hearing, even though Garland and senators rarely mentioned him by name.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked Garland whether he would step down as attorney general if asked to do something that was unconstitutional and unethical.
Garland stressed that while he didn’t expect that to happen with Biden, “if I am asked to do something and an alternative is not accepted, I would resign, yes.”
Garland is inheriting two politically controversial investigations that could test his pledge for independence.
U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware is handling a tax probe into the president’s son, Hunter Biden. Garland said he has not discussed the investigation with the president.
Then there’s U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was appointed by former Attorney General William Barr as a special counsel to investigate the origins of the 2016 investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign.
Additionally, Garland will need to sort out a linked surveillance fight after lawmakers let some intelligence programs lapse amid GOP divisions on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, Court.
But Garland outlined numerous policy issues Monday where he intends to shut the door on the Trump era, as he sought to highlight how he would embark on a new era at the DOJ.
For example, Garland committed to working with Senate Democrats on a probe into Trump’s child separation policy.
“I think that the policy was shameful. I can’t imagine anything worse than tearing parents from their children. And we will provide all the cooperation that we possibly can,” he said.
Garland also pledged to more actively use the department’s section on voting rights and to expand investigations into police departments where there may be broad use of excessive force. The country was rocked last year by months of protests after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
And he echoed Biden’s calls on the campaign trail to address mass incarceration with sentencing reform, while noting he had “great pause” about the death penalty. Trump resumed federal executions last year, leading to 13 executions.
“One important way I think is to focus on the crimes that really matter, to bring our charging and our arresting on violent crimes and others that deeply affect our society, and not have such an overemphasis on marijuana possession,” Garland said, adding that the criminal justice system should “be more sympathetic towards retrospective reductions in sentences.”
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