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The House Judiciary Committee met with an emboldened Attorney General Merrick Garland, who vigorously defended his department and the handling of a high-profile investigation into the president’s son that has become central to the GOP’s impeachment inquiry.
Garland’s first appearance before the panel since the GOP takeover of the House showed an attorney general eager to defend the Justice Department (DOJ) against claims of politicization that Republicans have placed front and center.
For Republicans, the hearing was an opportunity to fuel one query in its two-prong impeachment probe — special counsel David Weiss’s and the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation into Hunter Biden.
But in a brief remark to a question from a lawmaker over whether the GOP “rhetoric regarding the Biden case has any basis in reality,” Garland broadly denied the Biden investigation was stalled or limited due to political considerations.
“No it does not,” he replied.
Garland denies any interference with Weiss
Much of the GOP concern over the Biden case stems from testimony of an IRS whistleblower, Gary Shapley, who served as an agent on the case, telling lawmakers he believed the case was slow-walked by overly passive prosecutors.
They also center on claims from Shapley that Weiss sought — and was denied — special counsel status after failing to secure backing from U.S. attorneys in other districts from partnering in bringing tax crimes charges against Biden.
The hearing drilled down on arcane procedures for extending a U.S. attorney’s jurisdiction and the process for bringing joint cases with other prosecutors — details that have become newly relevant as the GOP alleges prosecutors were hamstrung from bringing charges.
It’s a depiction of Weiss that conflicts with another GOP concern — that Weiss mismanaged the investigation as a reflection of the broader politicization of the Justice Department.
Garland stuck by prior testimony that Weiss had total freedom in determining how to handle the case and where to file charges.
“I promised I would do whatever was required to enable Mr. Weiss to bring a case outside his jurisdiction, if that is what he thought was appropriate,” Garland said, adding that he would say “again and again if necessary” that he did not interfere with or intrude on the investigation in any manner.
Garland reiterated that stance when asked by Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) why Weiss had failed to pursue some tax charges before the statute of limitations expired.
“In this case, I left it to Mr. Weiss whether to bring charges or not. That would include whether to let the statute of limitations expire, or not, whether there was sufficient evidence to bring a case subject that was subject to the statute of limitations, or not, whether there were better cases to bring, or not,” he said.
But he refused to answer other questions about the rationale for his prosecutorial decisions or seeking to become a special counsel, saying such answers would have to come from Weiss.
GOP drills down on Weiss’s path to special counsel
Weiss was elevated to special counsel status in August, something Garland said he approved at Weiss’s request after a plea deal in Biden’s case fell apart amid disagreement between prosecutors and Biden’s attorneys over whether it limited further prosecution in the case.
Still, Republican lawmakers asked why Weiss had a change in heart, with committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) crediting GOP investigations.
“Something changed in 31 to 32 days, from July 10 to Aug. 11,” noting the July date Weiss penned a letter saying he had not sought special counsel status.
“I think two brave whistleblowers came forward and a judge called BS on the plea deal you guys tried to get past them, that’s what I think happened,” Jordan added.
Weiss’s July 10 letter affirms he never sought special counsel status, instead writing that he had discussions around seeking special attorney status, giving him powers under another statute to bring charges in other districts beyond his territory in Delaware.
But Garland’s testimony boiled down to his responsibility to keep his promise to Weiss — that if he wanted special counsel status, it would be granted.
Some in the GOP have since fumed that Weiss was able to stay on a case they see as badly mismanaged, arguing Garland should have appointed a new special counsel.
Jordan raised that anew Wednesday, saying Garland “picks the one guy he knows will protect Joe Biden, he picks David Weiss.”
But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Republicans were playing both sides, complaining about Weiss’s handling of the case while his removal would constitute actual interference.
“Can you imagine the hue and cry that you would hear from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle if you had removed him from that position? Can you imagine the claims that you had removed a prosecutor who was diligently investigating Hunter Biden? Can you imagine the outrage they would’ve expressed?” he said.
Garland noted it was concern from GOP senators during his confirmation hearing that prompted his promise to leave Weiss in place.
That point garnered agreement from one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.).
“You would have been criticized either way,” Buck said.
“Far from slow-walking, really once the Trump administration decided that that was the person leading the investigation, your hands were tied. You didn’t have the opportunity to make a decision on leadership of that investigation.”
Garland, politely, tells Congress to back off
Garland aimed to address criticisms of his department that have taken new life under GOP leadership, with the soft-spoken attorney general pointed in addressing claims the Justice Department has been politicized.
“A lot has been said about the Justice Department: about who we are and what we are doing; about what our job is, and what it is not; and about why we do this work. I want to provide some clarity,” he said.
“Our job is not to take orders from the president, from Congress, or from anyone else, about who or what to criminally investigate. As the president himself has said, and I reaffirm here today: I am not the president’s lawyer. I will also add that I am not Congress’s prosecutor.”
It was a frank summary of the escalating tension between Congress and the Justice Department, particularly as Jordan fires off a number of letters asking the department to turn over a number of documents dealing with ongoing investigations, including those into Biden as well as former President Trump.
And while he did not reference Congress directly, Garland said the DOJ would not be swayed by outside pressure.
“We will not be intimidated. We will do our jobs free from outside interference,” he said.
At another point in the hearing, Garland pushed back on Bishop, saying he did not question Weiss’s choices because “the way to not interfere is to not investigate an investigation.”
Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.), a former state and federal prosecutor, pointed to that line later in the hearing, saying that was exactly what the House Judiciary Committee was doing.
“Now, I thought that was particularly apropos here because this committee has been doing exactly the opposite. We have been, under the chairman’s leadership, investigating prosecutors all over the country in the middle of criminal investigations … I think in an effort, frankly, to derail the prosecutions in those cases,” Ivey said.
“It is a horrible precedent to be bringing in prosecutors in the middle of an investigation that is about to go to trial and that’s already been indicted. That is not the way this committee should be doing business. … Let’s let them do their jobs and stop politicizing these cases.”