U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland on Monday called the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump the “most heinous” attack on democracy and vowed to pursue investigative leads “wherever they take us.”
“I never expected to see that in my lifetime,” the 68-year-old Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday at his confirmation hearing to become the country's top law enforcement official as head the Justice Department.
“I can assure you this will be my main priority [and the subject of] my first briefing” if confirmed, said Garland, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division during the Clinton administration.
More than 200 rioters, many of them with extremist, anti-government views, have already been arrested in the aftermath of the mayhem that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer.
The mob of Trump supporters bashed in windows ransacked congressional offices and scuffled with police as lawmakers were meeting to certify that Trump had lost the November election to Democrat Joe Biden.
Garland, now a federal appeals court judge in Washington, said that if confirmed to one of the most important positions in Biden’s Cabinet, he would “look more broadly” at the leaders of the insurrection, their ideological views and their funding. Garland said he would make sure that prosecutors and investigators have whatever resources they need to carry out the probe.
After an at-times tumultuous period for the Justice Department during Trump’s four-year term in the White House, Garland vowed to keep political considerations out of decision-making at the agency.
“I am not the president’s lawyer,” he said, adding that Biden had promised to take a hands-off role in Justice Department decision-making on what cases to pursue.
“No investigations will get started for political purposes,” Garland said. He said he would resign if asked to do anything unlawful.
Garland, who is expected to be confirmed and whose nomination has drawn some initial support from Republicans, sought to assure Republican lawmakers that he has no intention of curbing investigations started by attorneys general appointed by Trump.
Garland said he had not discussed the current federal investigation of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, with the new U.S. leader. The investigation involves the younger Biden’s overseas financial transactions and tax considerations. Both Bidens have said there was no wrongdoing.
In addition, Garland told Senator Chuck Grassley, the lead Republican on the Judiciary Committee, that there was “no reason” to end an ongoing investigation over whether the Obama administration unlawfully investigated Russia’s support of Trump during the 2016 campaign, ahead of Trump’s upset victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Garland promised, if confirmed, to talk to the special prosecutor in the case, John Durham, “to see how it’s going.” Durham was chosen for the job by former Trump Attorney General William Barr.
Garland told Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that prosecutors had to be “very careful” about the use of national security search warrants in investigations, a practice that some Republicans say wrongly led to the probe of Trump’s alleged links to Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 election.
In his opening remarks, Garland committed to fighting discrimination in American life and extremist attacks against the government.
Garland said that the United States “does not yet have equal justice.”
“Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and they bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” Garland said.
As attorney general, Garland could oversee contentious racial disputes involving law enforcement abuses of minorities in criminal cases that have led to widespread street demonstrations in recent months.
Garland said that if he becomes attorney general, it would be “the culmination of a career I have dedicated to ensuring that the laws of our country are fairly and faithfully enforced, and that the rights of all Americans are protected.”
In 2016, former President Barack Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court, but Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination in a presidential election year. But last year, the then-Republican-controlled Senate reversed course, confirming a Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court just days ahead of the November election.
Garland appears likely to win approval in the Senate, which is politically divided between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, but with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote in his favor if needed. Already, at least two Republican senators have expressed support for his nomination.
The Biden administration has promoted Garland, who is viewed as a judicial moderate, as a welcome change to the frequent turmoil that erupted in Trump’s Justice Department.
Garland’s nomination has been praised by civil rights groups as well as by police organizations, more than 150 former Justice Department officials from both the Democratic and Republicans parties, and 61 former federal judges.
Republican Senator Graham tweeted support last month, saying, “He is a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law,” Graham wrote.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas also says he expects to support Garland’s nomination.
“Judge Garland’s extensive legal experience makes him well-suited to lead the Department of Justice, and I appreciated his commitment to keep politics out of the Justice Department,” Cornyn’s statement added.
Garland has been a federal appeals court judge in Washington for the past two decades. Early in his career, Garland was best known for overseeing the investigation and prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. McVeigh was convicted, sentenced to death and executed in 2001.
Now, Garland says that experience will put him in good stead in the investigation of the attack on the Capitol.
“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,” he said.