© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces Justice Department nominees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware
By Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee, vowed on Monday to protect the integrity of the Justice Department from partisan influence, in an effort to restore confidence after President Donald Trump repeatedly sought to bend the department to his will.
Trump, a Republican who lost to Biden in November, for years attacked Justice Department investigations of his 2016 campaign and Russian election interference as a “witch hunt” or a “hoax.”
The next attorney general will inherit a few investigations that began during the Trump administration of the origin of those probes and also of Hunter Biden, the new president’s son.
“I would not have taken this job if I had thought politics would have any influence over prosecutions or investigations,” Garland told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Monday.
“The president has promised that those decisions will only be made by the attorney general, and that is what I plan to do. I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone. I expect the Justice Department will make its own decisions in this regard.”
Garland’s promises on Monday marked a contrast from previous Attorney General William Barr, who came under criticism for his willingness to intervene in criminal cases in ways that benefited Trump’s political allies, from Michael Flynn to Roger Stone.
Garland pledged to sit down with career staff of the department, which have suffered from low morale for the past four years amid partisan attacks and accusations by Trump they were part of a “deep state.”
“I want to make clear to the career prosecutors…that my job is to protect them from partisan or other improper motives,” Garland said, adding that for now his visits with them will need to be over Zoom due to the pandemic.
Garland, a federal appellate judge and former prosecutor, is widely expected to be confirmed as the nation’s top U.S. law enforcement official.
He was nominated to lead a Justice Department now in the midst of intensive investigations into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Republican Trump’s supporters – an incident Garland called “heinous.”
Some of the more than 200 people arrested in the siege were associated with groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, underscoring rising concern about future violence from right-wing extremists.
Garland has experience in tackling such threats, having managed the sprawling investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by anti-government extremists and supervising the prosecution of the so-called Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski after a deadly bombing spree.
Garland told the committee on Monday he fears the Jan.6 riots were “not necessarily a one-off” and vowed to devote resources to the probe.
“We must do everything in the power of the Justice Department to prevent this kind of interference with policies of American democratic institutions,” Garland said.
“I don’t yet know what additional resources will be required by the department. I can assure you this will be my first priority.”
Garland’s pledge to maintain the independence of Justice Department investigations will also encompass ongoing cases that may cast members of Biden’s family or former Obama officials in an unfavorable light.
Amid questioning by Republicans, Garland said he had not discussed the Justice Department’s investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes with the White House.
“The president has made abundantly clear in every public statement before and after my nomination that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left in the Justice Department,” Garland told lawmakers. “So the answer to your question is no.”
He also told Republicans he expects to allow John Durham, who was appointed by Barr to investigate the origins of the investigation into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, to be able to continue his work.
“I understand that he has been permitted to remain in his position and sitting here today I have no reason to think that that was not the correct decision,” Garland said.