Confirmed as attorney general, turning page on Trump era
Merrick Garland has been confirmed as America’s top law enforcement officer, a boost for Joe Biden’s drive against racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Garland’s rise to attorney general, approved 70-30 by the US Senate in a strongly bipartisan vote, turns the page on former president Donald Trump’s harsh “law and order” rhetoric and efforts to bend the justice department to his will.
It also marks a poignant second chance for the 68-year-old judge who, nominated to the supreme court by then president Barack Obama in 2016, was denied a hearing by Senate Republicans on the pretext that it was an election year.
This time around his confirmation had been widely expected, especially after a relatively uneventful hearing where Republicans landed few punches. Mitch McConnell, who was Garland’s nemesis in 2016, told reporters last Tuesday that he would back him for attorney general.
“After Donald Trump spent four years – four long years – subverting the powers of the justice department for his own political benefit, treating the attorney general like his own personal defense lawyer, America can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re going to have someone like Merrick Garland leading the justice department,” said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of the vote. “Someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle.”
McConnell said he was voting to confirm Garland because of “his long reputation as a straight shooter and a legal expert” and that his “left-of-center perspective” was still within the legal mainstream.
“Let’s hope our incoming attorney general applies that no-nonsense approach to the serious challenges facing the Department of Justice and our nation,” McConnell said.
Garland faces a daunting inbox at a justice department that critics say was left in tatters by Trump and his own attorney general, William Barr. He must attempt to restore morale while addressing demands for racial justice in the wake of last year’s police killing of George Floyd and widespread Black Lives Matter protests.
At last week’s confirmation hearing in Washington, Garland stressed his commitment to combating racial discrimination in policing, arguing that America does not “yet have equal justice” as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats.
He said his first briefing as attorney general would be focused on the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. He told the committee he fears that the riots were “not necessarily a one-off” and pledged to provide prosecutors with all the resources they need to bring charges over the mob violence.
“We must do everything in the power of the justice department to prevent this kind of interference with policies of American democratic institutions,” he said.
Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard, Garland is a federal appellate judge and former prosecutor. He held senior positions at the justice department including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh.
Last week, reflecting on the rise in hate crimes and extremist groups, he said: “I certainly agree that we are facing a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City.”
Garland assured senators that the justice department would remain politically independent – a line that often became blurred under Trump and Barr. He emphasized that he had never spoken to Biden about a federal tax investigation into the president’s son, Hunter Biden, and that he did not expect interference from anyone.
“The president nominates the attorney general to be the lawyer, not for any individual, but for the people of the United States,” he said.
At one point in the hearing, Garland fought back tears after Cory Booker of New Jersey asked him about his own family’s experience of hateful extremism.
“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution,” the judge said. “The country took us in, and protected us, and I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back.
“So I very much want to be the kind of attorney general that you’re saying I could become, and I’ll do my best to become that kind of attorney general.”
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is telling associates he had no idea his Justice Department seized phone records of two top Democratic congressional critics of then-President Donald Trump. In the hours since The New York Times broke the news on Thursday that prosecutors subpoenaed Apple metadata from Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA), former Attorney General Sessions has privately told people that he wasn’t aware of, nor was he briefed on, the reported data seizures while he led the Trump DOJ. This week’s revelations were a surprise to him, according to a source familiar with the matter, and another person close to Sessions.
The US justice department’s internal watchdog launched an investigation on Friday after revelations that former president Donald Trump’s administration secretly seized phone data from at least two House Democrats as part of an aggressive leaks inquiry related to the Russia investigation into Trump’s conduct.
Donald Trump called Joe Biden a “mental retard” during the 2020 election, a new book says, but was reluctant to attack him too strongly for fear the Democrats would replace him with Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama. Biden went on to beat Trump by more than 7m in the popular vote and by 306-232 in the electoral college, a result Trump deemed a landslide when it was in his favor against Clinton in 2016.
The deadly insurrection at the US Capitol was “planned in plain sight” but intelligence failures left police officers exposed to a violent mob of Trump supporters, a Senate investigation has found. The Capitol police intelligence division had been gathering online data since December about plots to storm the building on 6 January, including messages such as: “Bring guns. It’s now or never.” But a combination of bad communications, poor planning, faulty equipment and lack of leadership meant the warnings went unheeded, allowing the insurrectionists to overrun the Capitol and disrupt certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Five people died.