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Five years after failing to give him a hearing as a Supreme Court nominee, Republican senators were generally cordial in their questioning of Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for attorney general.
“I like you, I respect you, and I think you are a good pick for this job,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, early in a Monday hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grassley is the top Republican on the committee.
“I think you’re a very good pick for this job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who previously served as Judiciary chairman.
Garland was appointed to the federal appellate bench in 1997 by then-President Bill Clinton and was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama. Senate Republicans — including Grassley and Graham — blocked holding a public hearing for his nomination, eventually allowing President Donald Trump to fill the seat with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Graham had also opposed an earlier confirmation hearing for Garland’s nomination for attorney general.
Outside witnesses are set to testify about Garland on Tuesday, with a committee vote scheduled for March 1. During the course of the hearing on Monday, he repeated that he would be an independent attorney general who served the American people, saying, “I am not the president’s lawyer, I am the United States’ lawyer.”
"You're going to be confirmed. I'll bet my farm in Vermont on that," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., after his questioning.
"Never ask anybody to bet that, senator,” replied Garland, laughing.
Republican senators generally avoided picking fights with Garland. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas praised him as a moderate voice before listing his grievances about Obama’s Justice Department. Ben Sasse of Nebraska asked about Garland’s views on the investigation into sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said she wanted to make sure an investigation into the taxes of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, could continue without impediment.
“You’ll be a good attorney general,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., after a back-and-forth on the definitions of racial bias.
There were a few exceptions. Sen. Mike Lee was combative in questioning Garland on the nominations of Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke to top Justice Department positions after they made statements on race that the Utah Republican deemed “radical.” Garland was full-throated in his defense of the two women’s capability.
An issue raised by multiple Republicans was ensuring that special counsel John Durham would be able to continue his investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Garland said he saw “no reason” to end Durham’s investigation but said he needed more information before making a blanket promise that it would continue.
“I really do have to have an opportunity to talk with him. I have not had that opportunity,” Garland said when asked by Grassley if he would remove Durham only “for cause.” “As I said, I don’t have any reason from what I know now — which is really, really very little — to make any determination on that ground. But I don’t have any reason to think that he should not remain in place.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pressured Garland on his view of the death penalty, asking him if he regretted the death penalty that was handed down to Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995. Garland, who had been one of the top federal prosecutors in that case, said he did not.
He did say the number of people sentenced to death who were later exonerated had given him “great pause” about the process.
“A most terrible thing happens when someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Garland about his thoughts on defunding the police. Garland noted that the Biden administration's stated policy is that more money should be spent for both police and programs for mental health and drug counseling. He also noted the difficulty police face, citing the bodycam footage from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection played during Trump’s impeachment trial. Hawley was one of the leading Republican opponents of certifying Biden’s win, which the pro-Trump rioters descended on the Capitol to stop on Jan 6.
Early in the hearing, Garland promised a broad investigation into the rioters and those who aided them. “We are facing a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City at that time,” he said.
“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,” Garland said of the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, adding, “This was the most heinous attack on democratic processes I’ve ever seen.”
The nominee became emotional when Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asked him about his motivation for serving.
“I come from a family where my grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution,” Garland said, choking up. “The country took us in and protected us. I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back.”
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