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Garland vows at confirmation hearing to keep politics out of DOJ while drawing bipartisan praise

Posted February 22, 2021 5:02 a.m. EST
Updated February 22, 2021 12:10 p.m. EST

Merrick Garland's 2-day confirmation hearing to be Biden's attorney general underway

— 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 to whether the DOJ should wade into former President Donald Trump's role in the riot.

LIVE UPDATES - Merrick Garland's attorney general confirmation hearing: Day 1

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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

Republicans also may push Garland to fully investigate Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after reports last week that federal investigators were investigating his handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long term care facilities in New York.

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.

"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 didn't mention Trump by name when asking about the investigation into the January 6 riots, but they touched on the question of whether the Justice Department should examine Trump's his 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 to consider those allegations instead.

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."

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Monday.

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