WASHINGTON – 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.”
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.