The longtime DC Circuit Court judge’s ascent to the top spot in Justice Department leadership is being welcomed by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate after the tumultuous, norm-busting behaviour at the DOJ during the Trump years.
While the former president would repeatedly weigh in publicly on the department’s prosecutions of his former campaign and transition team associates — Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and others — Mr Garland is unlikely to face such pressures from his prospective new boss, Joe Biden.
Mr Biden, careful to avoid the obvious conflict-of-interest optics his predecessor flagrantly defied, has said little about the ongoing probe into his own son Hunter Biden.
Mr Garland confirmed on Monday that the president had not spoken with him about that investigation.
“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,” Mr Garland said on Monday in response to a query from GOP Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa on whether the two had discussed the Hunter Biden probe.
“That was the reason that I was willing to take on this job. So the answer to your question is no.”
Mr Garland — a former Supreme Court nominee who was snubbed by the Senate GOP majority in 2016 under the short-lived pretence that justices should not be confirmed in presidential election years — has received bipartisan plaudits on the way to his new post in the Biden administration.
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana on Monday called Mr Garland a “very bright person,” CNN has reported.
Mr Grassley, who blocked Mr Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in 2016, praised the judge’s career of public service.
“Judge Garland is a good pick to lead the Department of Justice. I don’t think anyone doubts his credentials,” Mr Grassley said in a statement on Monday. “He has decades of experience as one of the most respected appellate judges in the country. And before that, he was a great prosecutor. When the domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, was executed for his crimes, we had Merrick Garland to thank for it,” Mr Grassley said, referring to Mr Garland’s prosecution under the death penalty of the Oklahoma City bomber.
Several Republicans have signalled to the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Richard Durbin of Illinois, they will vote yes on Mr Garland’s nomination, sending it to the Senate floor for a final vote next week.
“Republican senators just told me privately they will support him. I hope that his testimony will add to that number,” Mr Durbin told several reporters on Monday.
Republicans have maintained that their opposition to Mr Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 2016 was purely a matter of setting procedural precedent. (Never mind that they broke their own precedent four years later by ramming through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett a mere six days before the 2020 presidential election.)
When Mr Biden’s transition team leaked its intention to nominate Mr Garland for attorney general, Senator Lindsey Graham, the outgoing GOP chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was effusive in his praise.
“He is a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law,” Mr Graham said, adding that Mr Garland was a “sound choice” for the top legal post in the country.
While Mr Trump and a handful of congressional Republicans over the last four years assailed the DOJ, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies for being run by a so-called “deep state” of malign, anti-Trump bureaucrats, Mr Garland and Mr Biden have expressed their desire to rebuild morale at the department.
“Under President Trump and Attorneys General [Jeff] Sessions and [William] Barr, we saw a demoralisation of this department. We saw political favours being handed out right and left and we saw the morale of this department sink to a new low,” Mr Durbin said at Monday’s hearing. “We need the Attorney General to lead us forward,” he said.
In the final days of his administration, Mr Trump elevated loyalists to positions of considerable influence within the department as he pursued every avenue to overturn his 2020 election loss.
Mr Barr largely acquiesced to Mr Trump’s public demands: in 2019, he launched an investigation into the FBI agents who had probed 2016 Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia, an operation that eventually led to the appointment of former special counsel Robert Mueller. Mr Barr’s team also intervened in the sentencing of Mr Stone, a longtime friend of Mr Trump who had consulted on his 2016 campaign. The former AG has been excoriated for his role in the violent clearing of racial justice protesters at Lafayette Square last summer so Mr Trump could walk to a bizarre photo op outside nearby St John’s Episcopal Church.
Mr Garland promised senators on Monday he would not let politics and swampy insider-ism affect his decision-making at the department.
“I don’t care who pressures me in any direction. 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,” Mr Garland said in response to a series of questions from Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley.
He added: “That’s the only reason I’m willing to do this job.”
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