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Merrick Garland calls Capitol riot probe 'first priority' in confirmation hearing; promises no political interference

Kevin Johnson, Bart Jansen and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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In a Senate confirmation hearing remarkable for its civility, attorney general nominee Merrick Garland vowed Monday to fiercely guard the Justice Department from political interference and cast the far-reaching investigation into the deadly Capitol assault as his “first priority” as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Garland, a federal appeals court judge who last served as a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, was met with little resistance from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, some of whom lauded the nominee as “a very good pick” to lead a department roiled by politics during the Trump administration.

“I am not the president’s lawyer,” Garland declared, adding that he would “resign” in the face of any undue pressure exerted by the White House for political advantage.

“My job is to protect the Department of Justice,” Garland said. “That’s my vow.”

'Dangerous period' of domestic terrorism

At the same time, the former prosecutor offered a stark warning for the politically divisive times, saying that the country faces a “more dangerous period” than when violent domestic forces sparked the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which still stands as the most deadly domestic terror attack in U.S. history.

In his previous Justice Department tenure, Garland's work was steeped in the fight against domestic terrorism when he oversaw the Oklahoma City investigation and prosecution of bomber Timothy McVeigh, along with co-conspirator Terry Nichols.

At Monday's hearing, he called the Capitol siege the "most heinous attack on democratic processes I’ve ever seen."

If confirmed, Garland said his first act as attorney general would be to convene a meeting of prosecutors and investigators involved in the inquiry, which has so far led to more than 230 arrests.

Garland said he would urge investigators to examine “more broadly” the origins of the attack and determine the risk of future assaults.

Republicans raise questions on Hunter Biden, Donald Trump

The nominee's responses appeared to find favor with key Republican members of the panel, including Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the committee’s former chairman, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

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Cornyn said his consideration of Garland’s nomination rested on a promise that the judge would not tolerate political interference. And the nominee quickly made that pledge.

“I would not have taken this job if politics had any influence over prosecutions,” Garland said.

Grassley, meanwhile, was openly effusive.

"Judge Garland is a good pick to lead the Department of Justice," the Iowa senator said. "I don’t think anyone doubts his credentials. ... He has decades of experience as one of the most respected appellate judges in the country."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, referred to Garland's "reputation for integrity and setting aside partisan interests," urging him to bring those qualities to the job if he is confirmed.

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Asked at one point about the federal tax inquiry involving President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden, Garland said he had not discussed the case with the president.

“I have not,” Garland said. “The president made abundantly clear in every public statement before and after my nomination that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.”

Hunter Biden announced in December that the U.S. attorney in Delaware was investigating his taxes. Republicans also have questioned his business dealings in Ukraine and China. The president has expressed unflinching public support for his son.

The Hunter Biden investigation was one of several expected flashpoints in a hearing that never boiled over. When Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., warned against the possible pursuit of political opponents, including President Donald Trump or others in the previous administration, Garland said there would be no tolerance for raw political targeting.

"I have grown pretty immune to any kind of pressure," Garland said.

'We do not yet have equal justice'

Nevertheless, the hearing touched a wide range of equally difficult issues facing the Biden Justice Department, including the Trump administration's resumption of federal executions.

Biden is an opponent of capital punishment, and Garland said he expected that a moratorium on executions maintained during the Obama administration would likely be reinstated.

Garland said he harbored “great” concern about the application of the death penalty by the federal government. Thirteen federal inmates were executed in the last months of Trump’s administration, outpacing death warrants carried in the states.

Garland said exonerations of the wrongly convicted have given him “pause.”

“A most terrible thing happens when someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit,” Garland said.

Before executions were resumed by the Trump administration, the federal government had paused capital punishment for 17 years.

Acknowledging last summer's social justice protests, Garland highlighted the mission of the department's Civil Rights Division to protect the rights of the "most vulnerable members of our society."

"That mission remains urgent because we do not yet have equal justice," Garland said. "Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system, and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution and climate change."

As part of that effort, Garland also expressed support for resuming Justice scrutiny of police departments that have disproportionately used lethal force against Black people and other marginalized communities.

"Police accountability is essential," Garland said.

The Trump administration dramatically rolled back examinations of police department tactics, launching one investigation into a law enforcement agency during its four years, compared with 25 such inquiries during the Obama administration.

Civil rights advocates have argued that Trump's deference to law enforcement seriously undercut confidence in policing in Black communities.

Break from partisan politics?

Much of Monday's hearing, however, focused on how Garland would define the department's relationship with the White House after four years of an administration and a president who sought favored treatment for himself and allies, often with well-aimed missives from a once-active Twitter account.

Biden, who repeatedly railed against the politicization of the department on the campaign trail, has described his selection of Garland as an attempt to turn the page at the department.

Judiciary Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called Garland the right person to "meet the moment" in the post-Trump era.

"Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his successor, Bill Barr, the Justice Department became an arm of the White House, committed to advancing the interests of President Trump, his family, and his political allies," Durbin said, referring to Trump's attorneys general.

"It came as little surprise, then, that the United States Department of Justice became the Trump Department of Justice."

Garland said his loyalty belonged to the country, not a president.

"The president nominates the attorney general to be the lawyer – not for any individual, but for the people of the United States," Garland told the panel. "It is a fitting time to reaffirm that the role of the attorney general is to serve the rule of law and

to ensure equal justice under the law."

Merrick Garland: How Trump is just one of the huge issues hanging over the hearing

Garland said he would reaffirm a host of standards, including those that "strictly regulate communications with the White House."

The warm greeting from Senate Republicans on Monday offered the most important boost for the nominee, who also has garnered the bipartisan support of four former attorneys general, including two Republicans.

Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, both of whom served as attorneys general in the George W. Bush administration, were among more than 150 former Justice Department officials and U.S. attorneys who lauded the federal appeals court judge as "the right person" for a difficult job after the tumult of the Trump administration.

A separate endorsement was submitted on behalf of 61 former federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents.

"Judge Garland approaches the law with an unwavering commitment to fairness and justice," the judges said. "Those of us who have worked directly with Judge Garland have seen firsthand his strong moral compass and abiding integrity."

"The work and reputation of the Department of Justice are as important as they have ever been," the former Justice Department officials said. "Judge Garland is the right person to ensure the fair administration of justice, whether related to national security, public integrity, civil rights, antitrust, crime, or other pressing issues.

"He is also the right person to do so with integrity, humility, and a complete understanding of the substantial responsibility on his shoulders at this time."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., offered similar praise for the nominee, prompting Garland to briefly seize with emotion.

Garland's voice cracked when recounting his Jewish grandparents' flight from persecution, drawing on that experience as driving his call to public service.

“The country took us in; protected us," Garland said. "I feel an obligation to pay back."

The nominee's personal story caused the hearing room to fall silent as senators, aides and reporters directed their attention to Garland’s chair.

Later, Garland made a last appeal, vowing to return the Justice Department to time when law enforcement and criminal justice policies were pursued in a bipartisan way.

“It’s not just that the department has to do justice, but it has to appear to do justice and the people of the United States have to believe that justice is being done,” Garland said. “Otherwise, people lose faith in the rule of law.

“I would like during my time in the Justice Department to turn down the volume,” Garland said. “I know that these are divisive times,” Garland said. “I’m not naïve.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Merrick Garland confirmation hearing: Capitol riot is 'first priority'