Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee, vowed Monday to keep politics out of the Justice Department and to fully prosecute the “heinous” crimes committed in the attack on the US Capitol in the deadly riot on January 6.
Garland was praised by Republicans and Democrats alike in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, where he faced questions about the politically charged investigations that await him if confirmed to lead the Justice Department, including a federal probe into Biden’s son Hunter Biden and whether the DOJ should wade into former President Donald Trump’s role in the riot.
Garland, who led the Justice Department investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, said that the current threat from White supremacists now is a “more dangerous period than we faced at that time,” vowing to make his first priority to ensure investigators have all the resources they need to investigate the attack on the Capitol. He also pledged to redouble the Justice Department’s efforts to fight discrimination in law enforcement and provide equal justice amid heated policy debates over race and the criminal justice system.
“If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of White supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 – a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government,” Garland said Monday.
The hearing was often a lightning round through the myriad issues under the purview of the Justice Department and federal investigators, moving from questions about consent decrees and policing to immigration and border security to DOJ’s antitrust lawsuit against Google. Garland repeatedly said he would not be influenced by political considerations, with Republicans lamenting a politicized DOJ during the Obama administration and Democrats charging the department was used as a political weapon in the Trump administration.
“I don’t care who pressures me in any direction,” Garland said. “The Department, if I am confirmed, will be under my protection for the purpose of preventing any kind of partisan or other improper motive in making any kind of investigation or prosecution. That’s my vow. That’s the only reason I’m willing to do this job.”
While Garland declined to weigh in on some of the controversies of the Trump administration, he strongly rebuked the Trump administration’s child separation immigration policy, calling it “shameful” and committing to aiding a Senate investigation into the matter.
“I think that the policy was shameful. I can’t imagine anything worse than tearing parents from their children, and we will provide all of the cooperation that we possibility can,” Garland told Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The attorney general nominee also stressed that the Justice Department’s role is meant to “serve the Rule of Law and to ensure equal justice under the law,” noting that last year was the 150th anniversary of the Justice Department’s founding in the aftermath of the Civil War, and that its core mission was to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
“The 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.”
Republicans laud Garland after blocking his nomination for Supreme Court
Garland is testifying Monday before the Judiciary Committee five years after he became the poster child for the Republican blockade of an open Supreme Court seat in the final year of President Barack Obama’s term when Senate Republicans denied even a hearing for Garland as Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
After Trump won the White House in 2016 and selected a new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, Garland returned to his position as the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. While he stepped down from that position a year ago, he remains on the appellate court and has served on the federal bench for more than two decades.
He’ll be leaving that appointment to take over a department often at the center of the political crises of the Trump administration.
While Republicans blocked Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, his selection at attorney general was lauded by both Democrats and Republicans on Monday, and he is expected to be easily confirmed.
Garland’s hearing will continue for a second day on Tuesday, with outside witnesses testifying before the Judiciary Committee. Durbin told CNN on Monday that he expected Garland’s nomination would be approved by his panel next Monday, and he expects the full Senate will confirm Garland later that week. He said Republicans have agreed not to delay next Monday’s committee vote, which they can do for one week under the rules.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the panel’s top Republican, used his opening statement to defend the 2016 decision he made as the committee’s chairman not to hold a hearing for Garland.
“I took a position on hearings and I stuck to it, and that’s it,” Grassley said. “I admire Judge Garland’s public service.”
After the hearing, Grassley told reporters he was inclined to support Garland’s nomination. “Right now it looks good but I don’t want to make a final decision,” Grassley said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he would “most likely” support Garland. And Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said he expected to vote for Garland.
“That’s my intention,” Cornyn said. “I think he’s had an incredible career. And I think he seems like a fundamentally decent human being.”
GOP urges Garland to let Hunter Biden, Durham probes continue unimpeded
During the hearing, Republicans pressed Garland on whether he would allow the investigations into both Hunter Biden and the FBI’s handling of the 2016 Russia investigation to continue unimpeded, as well as questions on policy fights they’re likely to have with the Biden administration.
Grassley asked Garland whether he had spoken to Biden about his son’s case, where federal investigators in Delaware have been examining multiple financial issues involving the younger Biden, including whether he violated tax and money laundering laws in business dealings in foreign countries, principally China, two people briefed on the probe told CNN in December.
“I have not,” Garland responded. “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. That was the reason that I was willing to take on this job.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, asked him about whether he would be Biden’s “wing man,” in a dig at former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder.
“I am not the President’s lawyer,” Garland responded. “I am the United States’ lawyer.”
Multiple Republicans asked Garland about the problems with the FBI’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants in the Russia investigation, which were documented by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. And they urged Garland to allow John Durham, whom former Attorney General William Barr made a special counsel last year as he investigated the FBI’s handling of the Russia case, to complete that investigation, just as Barr allowed former special counsel Robert Mueller to do.
Garland said he needed to speak with Durham about the probe before he could make any commitments, but added, “I don’t have any reason to think he should not remain in place.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican considered a possible 2024 presidential candidate, asked Garland whether he supported defunding the police. Garland responded by saying neither he nor Biden support that, while noting, “We saw how difficult the lives of police officers were in the bodycam videos we saw when they were defending the Capitol.”
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, another potential 2024 GOP candidate, got into a lengthy discussion with Garland over the federal death penalty, asking if he regretted supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing case.
Garland responded he did not have any regret for supporting the death penalty in that case, but he has developed concerns in the two decades since, including over exonerations, the arbitrary way it’s applied and the impact it’s had on communities of color.
Garland pledges to pursue January 6 investigation wherever it goes
Democrats have charged that the Trump administration damaged the Justice Department’s credibility, from its handling of cases involving Trump’s friends and aides to the former President’s use of his pardon power – and they were hopeful Garland would restore it.
“The public’s faith in the Department of Justice has been shaken – the result of four years of Departmental leadership consumed with advancing the personal and political interests of one man – Donald Trump,” Durbin said in his opening statement. “Judge Garland, we are confident that you can rebuild the Department’s once hallowed halls. That you can restore the faith of the American people in the rule of law. And that you can deliver equal justice for all.”
Democrats largely didn’t mention Trump by name when asking about the investigation into the January 6 riot, but they touched on the question of whether the Justice Department should examine the former President’s role, which led to his impeachment. Even Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, after voting to acquit Trump in the Senate trial, suggested that the criminal justice system is the right venue in which to consider those allegations.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, encouraged Garland to look “upstream,” asking whether it was a fair question for the investigation to “not rule out investigation of funders, organizers, ringleaders or aiders and abettors who were not present in the Capitol on January 6.”
“Fair question,” Garland responded. “We will pursue these leads wherever they take us.”
Later, Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, raised Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 riot, but didn’t ask Garland about whether Trump should be investigated.
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and several other Democrats asked Garland how the Justice Department can address the disparate treatment Black Americans receive in the justice system and problems with police discrimination.
Garland pointed specifically to mass incarceration as one issue that should be tackled. “We can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society, and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession,” Garland said.
Durbin raised what he said was a mistake that both he and Biden made two decades ago backing legislation that implemented disproportionate sentences for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. Garland said it was an issue he planned to examine further.
At the end of his exchange with Booker, Garland fought back tears after Booker asked him about his motivations for taking on the role and his own family history confronting hate and discrimination.
“I come from a family where my grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution,” Garland said. “I feel an obligation to the country to pay back for protecting us.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Jessica Schneider, Kelly Mena, David Shortell and Christina Carrega contributed to this report.