Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden's attorney general nominee, vowed Monday to prioritize combating extremist violence with an initial focus on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as he sought to assure lawmakers that the Justice Department would remain politically independent on his watch.
A federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, Garland is now among Biden's most widely supported nominees, putting him on track for a quick confirmation potentially within days. He will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous era under former president Donald Trump — rife with political drama and controversial decisions — and that faced abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
Garland sought repeatedly Monday to assure members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would stay above the fray of politics. He emphasized that he had never spoken to Biden about the federal tax investigation into his son, Hunter Biden, and pledged to resign as attorney general if needed to stand up to the White House — though he said he didn't expect that would be necessary “with this president.”
“I have grown pretty immune to any kind of pressure, other than the pressure to do what I think is the right thing, given the facts and the law. That is what I intend to do as the attorney general," Garland said. “I don’t care who pressures me in whatever direction.”
Get Philly local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Philadelphia newsletters.
The positive reception for Garland illustrated that senators are ready to move forward after his name became synonymous with a bitter, four year partisan battle over Supreme Court nominations during the Trump presidency. But while praising Garland for his record and his temperament, Republicans who denied Garland a seat on the high court made clear that they will not give him a free pass if he is confirmed as attorney general.
“I just want to say I like you, I respect you, and I think you are a good pick for this job,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the panel and the former chairman who refused to hold confirmation hearings for Garland in 2016. “But I have a lot of questions about how you are going to run the Department of Justice.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he intends to vote for Garland and called him a “fundamentally decent human being.” Still, Cornyn said, “he’s also made clear that he’s going to advance the policies of the Biden administration. And I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not going to like some of those."
Garland faced sustained questioning from senators about his plans to handle specific investigations and politically sensitive cases, like the Hunter Biden investigation and the special counsel’s inquiry started by former Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. The latter investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, also remains open.
Under questioning from Grassley, Garland said he had not spoken to Durham yet but had no reason to second-guess Barr’s decision to give him special counsel status. Still, while expressing support for transparency at the Justice Department's decision-making, Garland declined to commit to making public the results of the Durham investigation.
To date, Durham has interviewed officials from the FBI, Justice Department and the CIA regarding the early days of the Russia investigation, and has produced criminal charges against just one person — a former FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to altering an email. Garland said “there were certainly serious problems” with applications for surveillance during the FBI’s Russia investigation, and that he intended as attorney general to speak more deeply about the issue with the Justice Department’s inspector general and with the FBI director.
“I am always concerned and have always been concerned that we be very careful about FISA,” Garland said, using the acronym for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
An experienced judge, Garland held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh. But he is set to return to a department that is radically different from the one he left. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally valuable as investigations into the Capitol insurrection progress.
Garland said his first briefing as attorney general would be focused on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He promised to provide prosecutors with whatever resources they need to bring charges over the attack.
“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 in his opening statement.
Garland also emphasized his commitment to combating racial discrimination in policing — he said America doesn’t “yet have equal justice” — as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats. “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,” Garland said.
With civil rights groups and activists pushing Biden, a death penalty foe, to take immediate action to halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment during the Trump administration, Garland described his reservation about the death penalty and its impact.
He said he believes it is likely the Biden administration could issue a moratorium on the death penalty after 13 federal executions were carried out in the final six months of the Trump administration, the first federal executions in nearly 20 years. Garland said the death penalty gives him “great pause” and is concerned about what he sees as the “almost randomness or arbitrariness of its application” and the “disparate impact” the death penalty has on Black Americans.
At one point in the hearing, Garland held back tears as Sen. Cory Booker asked him about the hate and discrimination faced by his family.
“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution. The country took us in, and protected us, and 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," Garland said. "So I very much want to be the kind of attorney general that you’re saying I could become, and I’ll do my best to become that kind of attorney general.”
More than 150 former Justice Department officials have written to Congress supporting Garland's nomination, including former attorneys general Loretta Lynch, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, along with 61 former federal judges. Other backers include two sons of former Attorney General Edward Levi.
“There have been few moments in history where the role of attorney general — and the occupant of that post — have mattered more,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Judiciary chairman.