‘I am not the president’s lawyer’: Takeaways from Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing

Savannah Behrmann

Jeanine Santucci
 
| USA TODAY

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AG nominee Merrick Garland chokes up at hearing, talks about family

During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland discussed his feelings of obligation to the country.

staff video, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Merrick Garland faced the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing as President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee and underwent a few tense moments of questioning.

However, the nominee to head the Justice Department largely earned bipartisan support, approximately five years after Senate Republicans refused to grant him a Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Garland was pressed on political independence of the Justice Department, systemic racism, immigration, the war on drugs and more.

Here are the top takeaways from Monday’s hearing:

‘I am not the president’s lawyer’

Garland asserted that he would rebuff any attempt by the White House to politicize the Justice Department, declaring: “I am not the president’s lawyer; I am the United States’ lawyer.”

“My job is protect the Department of Justice,” Garland said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was highlighting the Fast and Furious scandal under President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder and the relationship between an attorney general and a president, had asked Garland whether he would be Biden’s “wingman,” which Garland denounced.

More: Sen. Ted Cruz questions AG nominee Merrick Garland. After Mexico trip, should he quarantine?

Garland was often pressed by Republican senators over the political independence of the Justice Department, and was pressed, to which he agreed, to commit to not prosecute Biden’s political foes. 

Very few GOP lawmakers mentioned Trump’s Justice Department, and the accusations Attorney General Bill Barr faced for using the power of the agency to help President Donald Trump politically.

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Merrick Garland, Attorney General nom: “I don’t care who pressures me”

During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland discussed how he’d approach outside partisan pressures.

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Garland continued that Biden has pledged that he would not intervene in Justice Department investigations, indicating that he expected the department would remain free from partisan political interference.

Garland pledged that Justice investigations would proceed “without regard for partisanship” or the political influence of subjects of those investigations.

“I am a strong believer in following the processes of the department,” Garland said, adding that he respected the authority of the department’s inspector general to investigate possible misconduct.

Garland, a former top Justice official who last served in that department during the Clinton administration, said he would reaffirm a host of standards including those that “strictly regulate communications with the White House.”

More: Merrick Garland, Joe Biden haven’t spoken about Hunter Biden investigation

Garland highlights tense moment in U.S. history

Garland said the country faces a “more dangerous period” than the forces that sparked the Oklahoma City bombing, the most deadly domestic terror attack in U.S. history.

Garland, who oversaw the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols, vowed to lead the now far-reaching investigation into the deadly Capitol attack, which left five dead.

Confirmation hearing: Merrick Garland calls Capitol riot probe ‘first priority,’ promises no political interference

Garland called the Capitol attack the “most heinous” assault on American democracy.

As one of his first acts, if confirmed, Garland would meet with prosecutors and pledge to provide all the resources necessary to push the inquiry forward, he said.

“This was the most heinous attack on democratic processes I’ve ever seen,” Garland told the Judiciary Committee.

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

Questions on ‘defund the police’ and property destruction during Black Lives Matter protests

When pressed about whether the Biden administration supports the “defund the police” movement, Garland answered that neither he nor President Biden support it.

He said funding and resources should be put “in alternative ways” to better address those who are “mentally ill and those who are suicidal so that police officers don’t have to do a job they are not trained for” and rather, mental health professionals can step in during those situations.

“President Biden believes in giving the resources to police departments to help them reform and gain the trust of their communities,” Garland said.

More: From Trump to Hunter Biden, a lot hangs over Merrick Garland’s Senate confirmation hearing

Republican senators also asked Garland whether racial justice protests such as those at the federal courthouse in Portland constituted “violent extremism,” which is how he described the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Garland said he would have to look at specific incidents to determine charges. But he said he drew the line for “domestic extremism” or “terrorism” at preventing federal judges from doing their jobs during the day. Attacking a courthouse property at night would be “a serious crime,” but a different one, he said.

“That’s where I draw the line. Both are criminal,” Garland said. “But one is a core attack on our democratic institutions.”

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., asked whether Garland would launch more investigations of local police departments. The Trump administration opened one “pattern and practice” investigation during four years, after the Obama administration launched 25 investigations during eight years.

Garland said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division could investigate police, with remedies including consent decrees, criminal prosecution of abusive officers and funding for police departments to reform themselves. He argued that good police officers would welcome reforms to weed out the bad.

Pressed by both sides about systemic racism 

Garland was pressed by both Democrats and Republicans about systemic racism: ranging from whether it even existed to what the Justice Department would do to solve it. 

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Garland how to know when an institution is racist and whether that was just “by the numbers.”

Garland said “if there’s a pattern, and a practice, this is not just a question of individual numbers. What we are looking for here are patterns,” regarding discrimination.

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Merrick Garland hearing: Kennedy presses Garland on implicit bias

Merrick Garland hearing: Sen. Kennedy presses Garland on meaning of implicit bias, asking if it means “I’m a racist but I don’t know I’m a racist?”

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Garland continued to face tense questioning from several GOP lawmakers over the Biden administration’s executive action regarding racial equity, which has received backlash from conservatives. 

Garland answered the order defines “equity as a fair and impartial treatment of every person without regard to their status and including individuals in under-served communities where they were not accorded that before. I don’t see any distinction in that regard.”

Later, Kennedy pushed Garland on the “concept” of implicit bias, asking, “Does that mean I am a racist no matter what I do or what I think?” 

Garland said everyone has biases and stereotypes. The department would investigate when an institution has a pattern of biased behavior that could be identified and remedied.

“You shouldn’t take it as pejorative,” Garland said. “It’s an element of the human condition.”

‘No reason’ to question Durham’s status

Garland told lawmakers that he had “no reason” to question the status of John Durham, the special prosecutor leading a continuing investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation appointed by former Attorney General Bill Barr.

Garland was pressed by Republican lawmakers to make a commitment not to dismiss Durham’s investigation without cause. As special counsel, Durham cannot be dismissed other than by the attorney general and with specific reasons that may include misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity and conflict of interest given in writing.

More: Merrick Garland expects return to death penalty moratorium

Garland said he would review the facts of the case but could not make a specific commitment before the committee on Monday.

Durham was tasked with investigating the use of surveillance in the 2016 election by the FBI as they attempted to determine if Russia’s election interference efforts were boosting Trump’s campaign at the time. It became political fuel for Republicans who claimed the Obama administration targeted the Trump campaign.

The Biden administration has said it would allow Durham to continue his investigation, and Garland said he intends to meet with Durham if confirmed by the Senate.

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‘Take control of your life’: Garland addressed addiction in America

Garland addressed the issues surrounding addiction and drugs in this country, and how prosecution of these is at the core of the problem surrounding mass incarceration and racial discrimination.

 “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.

More: Chuck Grassley unapologetic about blocking Merrick Garland from U.S. Supreme Court

Garland was asked by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., about what the senator called a mistake both he and Biden made backing legislation 25 years ago that enforced disproportionate sentences for crack cocaine in comparison to powder and the implementation of the First Step Act passed by President Donald Trump. Garland said the implementation was something he would investigate. 

The First Step Act is sweeping law designed to reduce the federal prison population while easing offenders’ transition back to their communities. Congress approved the law in 2018 with support from both parties.

Garland also addressed the opioid crisis, saying “treating people in those circumstances, and the criminal justice system is an abuse of them but is also a terrible misallocation of resources. So, the drug courts being able to get people into addiction programs are a godsend and I am in favor of them.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes, Bart Jansen, Kevin Johnson

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