WASHINGTON – Taking the reins at the Justice Department, Attorney General Merrick Garland sought Thursday to assure career staffers that he would prioritize restoring the department’s reputation for political independence and ensuring equal justice after a tumultuous four years under former President Donald Trump.
“The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the norms that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee,” Garland said in his first address to the department’s more than 115,000 employees.
“All of us are united by our commitment to the rule of law, and to seek an equal justice under law,” he said.
Welcome to the new Justice Department, likely a much tamer place to be after four years of blaring headlines under Donald Trump.
The former president insisted that his attorney general, and entire department, be loyal to him personally, battering the department’s reputation for political independence. Former Attorney General William Barr became a veritable celebrity under Trump, after he spun the Russia report from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller favorably for the president, even though Mueller pointedly said he could not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice. Barr later moved to drop the criminal charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and publicly overturned his own prosecutor's recommended prison sentence for another convicted Trump ally, Roger Stone.
But not even Barr made it to the end of the Trump administration; he resigned in December, weeks after he said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential race, contradicting Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.
On Thursday, Garland signaled in his first address to staff — a formal, 10-minute speech inside the Great Hall at Justice Department headquarters, speaking virtually to staff with about 30 people spread across the large room — the department would return to its normal traditions away from the political sphere. President Joe Biden has also insisted the same.
Try though he may to stay out of politics, Garland is facing some immediate political challenges, including overseeing the ongoing criminal tax investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter, and the investigations and prosecutions stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when thousands of pro-Trump rioters stormed the building to halt the certification of the election results.
The Justice Department also has an ongoing federal probe into the overseas and business dealings of the former New York City mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, which stalled last year over a dispute about investigative tactics as Trump unsuccessfully sought reelection. And separately, the special counsel investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, which shadowed Trump’s presidency for more than two years, remains ongoing. Garland will have to decide how to handle it and what to make public.
But the nation's top law enforcement official vowed Thursday that he would prioritize ensuring the department return to prosecutorial norms and work to make the public confident in its independence to serve justice.
“Those norms require that like cases be treated alike,” he said. “That there not be one rule for Democrats, and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes one rule for the powerful, and another for the powerless, one rule for the rich and another for the poor, or different rules, depending upon one’s race or ethnicity."
An experienced judge, Garland held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally valuable as investigations into the Capitol insurrection progress.
“When I walked in the door of Main Justice this morning, it really did feel like I was coming home,” Garland said, referring to Justice Department headquarters.
Garland arrived for his first day shortly after 9 a.m. and was greeted by several dozen officials in the courtyard of the department’s headquarters. As he hopped out of his SUV, Garland hugged his wife, waved to the crowd and elbow-bumped with his predecessor, acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, as he walked into the building.
About 15 minutes later, he took the oath of office, administered by Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus. A formal ceremonial swearing-in is expected later Thursday with Vice President Kamala Harris.
His first briefing was expected to focus on the insurrection and the ongoing investigations by federal prosecutors. So far, about 300 people have been charged with federal crimes, including far-right extremists who are alleged to have been involved in pre-planning and conspiracies to breach the Capitol and assault law enforcement.
Garland is expected to be briefed by FBI Director Christopher Wray and top national security officials and will also visit the U.S. attorney’s office to meet with prosecutors who are trying the cases.