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Takeaways from Merrick Garland’s hearing with the House Judiciary Committee

By Tierney Sneed

The House Judiciary Committee, known for its combativeness, had the opportunity Thursday to question Attorney General Merrick Garland for the first time since he took his perch atop the Justice Department.

Republicans repeatedly battered Garland with sensational claims that the department was treating parents like “domestic terrorists” with a recent memo outlining steps DOJ was taking to address threats of violence against local school officials.

Democrats defended Garland from those and other GOP critiques, but had a few matters they sought to grill Garland about as well — including the department’s approach to civil rights issues and its handling of a defamation case against former President Donald Trump.

Here are the takeaways from Thursday’s hearing:

Garland defuses the Bannon criminal referral bomb

One of the most scrutinized decision that Garland will face as attorney general was about to fall in his lap as the hearing was unfolding, with the House also moving towards approving criminal contempt resolution against Steve Bannon. That move puts before Garland a decision on whether to prosecute the adviser to former President Donald Trump for his refusal to cooperate in the House’s January 6 insurrection investigation.

Chairman Jerry Nadler referenced that referral and others the DOJ may be receiving from the House’s Capitol insurrection investigation in an early question for Garland.

“The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances, we’ll apply the facts and the law and make a decision, consistent with the principles of prosecution,” the attorney general said.

Garland received praise from several Democrats about the department’s broader criminal investigation into the Capitol breach, though they also questioned him about the pace of those prosecutions.

Garland said that the time the prosecutions have taken “is really not long at all,” given the challenges of tracking down the defendants, the amount of discovery in the cases, and the way the pandemic affects court room operations.

Republicans go all in on school board threats memo

The school board memo dominated Republicans’ questions. It directed the FBI to convene meetings with state and local officials, and to work on opening lines of communications for reporting threats. The top Republican on the committee, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan equated the DOJ’s approach to creating a “snitch line on parents,” while several Republicans suggested that parents were being viewed as “domestic terrorists.”

On several occasions, Garland pushed back at the claims, telling the committee that “we are not investigating peaceful protest or parent involvement at school board meetings.”

“We are only concerned about violence, threats of violence against school administrators, teachers, staff, people like your mother a teacher, that is what we’re worried about,” he said. “We are worried about that across the board. We’re worried about threats against members of Congress. We’re worried about threats against police.”

Garland catches Dem flack for handling of Trump defamation case

While he fielded Democratic support for the school board memo, Garland did catch a pointed question about how the department is handling a defamation case against Trump. Under Garland, the Justice Department is continuing to argue that Trump, in the case, should be treated as a government official acting in his official capacity, rather than a private defendant.

Garland defended the department’s handling of the litigation when it was raised by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee.

“Sometimes being the attorney general and sometimes being the judge, that means taking positions with respect to the law that are required by the law, but which you would not take as a private citizen,” Garland said. “In this circumstance, the Justice Department’s briefing is not about whether this was defamation or it wasn’t defamation, it was solely on the question on the application of the Tort Claims Act.”

Dems keep heat on Garland for civil rights moves

Democrats also grilled Garland on several civil rights matters, including police misconduct and violence in prisons — which have both been priorities under the current DOJ leadership. Perhaps the sharpest line of questioning on this front came from Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, who pressed Garland on racial discrimination in policing and on the department’s recently announced review of DOJ police grants.

Garland punted on a request by Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson that the department brief lawmakers on the results of an investigation announced last month into Georgia’s prison system, which is an expansion of an Obama-era investigation that has not yet yielded public results.

“I’m not sure what additional material can be provided outside of what we provide in court, but we’ll look into it for you,” Garland said.

California Rep. Karen Bass brought up a letter sent to the department by the family of Tamir Rice,12-year-old Black child who was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer, seeking that the DOJ reopen the inquiry into his killing. Garland, noting department protocol, would not say how the department was responding to the letter.

Garland was also unable to answer Bass’ question — which referenced the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, who died after being injected with ketamine during a police stop — about whether DOJ has a policy banning chemical restraints during arrest or detention.

“I’m not familiar with that specifically, the Deputy Attorney General is doing a review of all of our use of force policies,” Garland said, while pointing to the recently announced DOJ limits on chokeholds.

Democrats repeatedly asked Garland about the departments actions to protect voting rights, with New York Rep. Mondaire Jones noting the department has sued only one state — Georgia — among several that have passed restrictive election laws this year. Garland noted how “labor intensive” these investigations are, particularly after the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

Durham probe is “continuing” but Garland won’t say what special counsel is investigating.

Garland told Rep. Scott Fitzgerald that the investigation by special counsel John Durham — who was made a special counsel by Attorney General William Barr in the final weeks oft he Trump administration — was “continuing,” but the attorney general wouldn’t say what Durham was investigating.

Garland pointed to the budget that had been publicly approved to fund the Durham probe, telling the Wisconsin Republican that he could draw from that that the work hadn’t ended.

“I don’t want to say what it’s about,” Garland said when asked whether investigation was continuing into the Clinton Foundation. “That’s up to Mr. Durham. I’m not determining what he’s investigating.”

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