Capitol Riot Adds to Garland’s Agenda as Senate Weighs DOJ Pick

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Joe Biden introduced Merrick Garland as his choice for attorney general six weeks ago. Since then, the deadly riot at the Capitol spawned criminal charges against some participants and the Senate’s Republican leader has predicted Donald Trump may yet be prosecuted for inciting the attack.

The insurrection has only added to a roster of politically charged issues that Garland will be asked about when he finally has his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and Tuesday.

Capitol Riot Adds to Garland’s Agenda as Senate Weighs DOJ Pick

Just getting a hearing will be vindication for Garland almost five years after Senate Republicans blocked consideration of his nomination to the Supreme Court by then-President Barack Obama. This time, Garland has bipartisan support and is expected to be confirmed, so he can use the hearings to say how he intends to restore the department’s credibility after years of political attacks and pressure from former President Trump.

“People need to understand that there’s a new sheriff in town, and the Justice Department is going to be run extremely differently,” said Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “You couldn’t have a more credible, more articulate or a more experienced person to deliver that message.”

Hunter Biden Probe

Garland will talk about the necessity of independence for the Justice Department and the need to protect the integrity of its operations in his testimony Monday, according to a person familiar with his planned remarks who said he’ll also pledge to focus on civil right issues.

President Biden has insisted he’ll let his attorney general make the tough calls on touchy matters --including pending investigations of his son, Hunter Biden, and inquiries touching on Trump.

“One of the most serious pieces of damage done by the last administration was the politicizing of the Justice Department,” Biden said at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee on Feb. 16. “Their prosecutorial decisions will be left to the Justice Department, not me.”

Republican senators led by Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina plan to press Garland on whether he’ll intervene in -- or stop -- politically sensitive probes, according to their offices. Yet Graham, a close Trump ally, has called Garland “a sound choice” and “a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law.”

Pressure to pursue possible criminal charges against Trump has come not only from Democrats but also from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. After joining most Republicans in blocking the former president’s conviction in his second impeachment trial, McConnell took to the Senate floor to denounce Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the riot and pointedly added that former presidents can be subject to criminal and civil litigation. Trump “didn’t get away with anything yet -- yet,” he said.

“The things that Trump did as president now include a systematic effort to destroy our democracy,” Ayer said. “I think it’s a really tough question for Merrick Garland and the administration to address.”

Senators will have many other topics to explore with Garland, 68, a veteran of the legal community and Justice Department who has served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 1997. Among them:

  • China. Committee members of both parties are likely to urge a continued hard line on China, from national security concerns about Huawei Technologies Ltd.’s role in providing equipment for new 5G mobile networks to intellectual property protection.
  • Antitrust. The question is whether the Justice Department will expand its antitrust moves to curb the power of social network and technology giants to players including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. DOJ is already suing Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and the Federal Trade Commission has a suit against Facebook Inc.
  • Cybersecurity. The department and the FBI -- which ultimately reports to the attorney general -- will continue to play a central role in investigating and prosecuting hacking attacks that so far are often discovered only after intrusions into U.S. government agencies and companies.
  • Domestic extremism. Biden has said he wants the department “focused heavily” on combating white supremacists and domestic extremists, a threat critics say it downplayed before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
  • Race and police. Biden also pledged to address issues related to racial equality, police reform and sentencing disparities affecting minorities -- all of which are expected to involve the department.
  • Student loans. Biden will ask the department to review his legal authority to cancel student loan debt, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 17.

During his previous time at the Justice Department, Garland oversaw high-profile domestic terrorism prosecutions, including for bombings in Oklahoma City and at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

He first served in the department as a special assistant in President Jimmy Carter’s administration before going into private practice. He returned to the department for a brief stint in 1989 as an assistant U.S. attorney.

In 1993, he became a deputy assistant attorney general in the department’s criminal division and then was promoted to be a top aide to the deputy attorney general.

Biden has named Lisa Monaco to be deputy attorney general and Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general, rounding out the leadership team. Monaco spent more than a decade at the Justice Department and was homeland security adviser in the Obama administration. Gupta headed the department’s Civil Rights Division under Obama.

The Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule confirmation hearings for Monaco and Gupta.

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