Key takeaways from Garland's testimony before Senate panel

It was Garland's first hearing since appointing two special counsels.

March 1, 2023, 1:03 PM

For the first time since his appointment of two special counsels to oversee investigations into both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for an annual oversight hearing.

The attorney general began by telling the committee that the department's employees face "complex threats to our national security."

"Every day, the 115,000 employees of the Justice Department work tirelessly to fulfill our mission: to uphold the rule of law, to keep our country safe, and to protect civil rights," he said.

Garland, who is famously tight-lipped in terms of discussing any aspects of ongoing criminal investigations before his department, was pressed on a wide-ranging number of topics, including the Trump and Biden cases, Hunter Biden, Supreme Court protests, fentanyl deaths and more.

Here are key takeaways from the hearing:

Special counsel explanation

Garland was asked at the very end of the hearing about his decisions to appoint special counsels in cases involving classified documents found at the homes and offices of Biden and Trump. The attorney general reiterated his explanation, saying he believed when Trump formally announced his 2024 bid and Biden expressed his intention to run for reelection that he was left with no choice under DOJ regulations.

"I thought that is an extraordinary circumstance and well-fitting within the regulations to provide a level of independence and accountability that fit within the special counsel regulations," Garland said.

Disavowal of Mar-a-Lago leaks

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Garland over leaks that have been reported following the FBI's search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate last August. Cruz said he believed the leaks were "to set a predicate" for an eventual indictment of Trump.

Garland disavowed the leaks, calling them a "violation of our regulations and our requirements."

In a follow-up exchange with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Garland was asked about a Washington Post report that FBI agents initially resisted the idea that a court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago should be necessary to retrieve the classified documents still believed to have been in former President Trump's possession.

Garland declined to comment on the article, but noted "as a general matter ... that in my long experience as a prosecutor there is often a robust discussion and in the end [that's] encouraged among investigators and prosecutors --" before he was abruptly interrupted by Hawley.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, walks past Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., front left, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the Capitol, March 1, 2023, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Clash with Cruz on protests at Supreme Court justices' homes

In one of the most tense exchanges of the hearing, Cruz attacked Garland for not being more aggressive in prosecuting individuals who have protested outside the homes of Supreme Court justices.

Garland pushed back as Cruz accused Garland of politicizing the department "to the greatest extent I've ever seen in this country," saying the men and women of the DOJ work in a nonpartisan manner.

When Cruz accused the DOJ of standing by as protesters moved to attack conservative justices, Garland discussed the unprecedented move to provide around-the-clock protections for justices.

"When the Dobbs draft was leaked, I did something no attorney general in the history of the department had done before. For the first time in history, I ordered U.S. Marshalls 24/7 to defend every residence of every justice," he replied.

Amid the back-and-forth, which involved frequent interruptions by Cruz, Garland asked, "Can I answer the question?"

Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at a hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2023, in Washington.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Hunter Biden investigation

Garland declined to engage when asked about the ongoing criminal investigation into Hunter Biden, citing the work by the U.S. Attorney David Weiss in Delaware.

"I have pledged not to interfere with that investigation and I have carried through with my pledge," he said.

Garland made clear that Weiss has been told he has "full authority" to make any charging decisions stemming from the investigation, even if that would involve bringing a case in a district outside of Delaware. He also said that he has pledged any resources necessary to Weiss to be able to conduct his investigation and has received no reports thus far of his investigation being stymied in any way by personnel at Main Justice.

Garland gets emotional discussing fentanyl deaths

The attorney general grew emotional as he discussed fentanyl deaths as he was pressed by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee chairman, about the scourge of fentanyl and how the DOJ can counter the widespread sale of laced pills to young people.

"The cartels that are creating these pills and that are distributing them within the United States are the most horrid individuals you can imagine," Garland said.

Garland described the drug epidemic as one "unleashed on purpose" by the cartels.

"We are focusing on fentanyl with enormous urgency," Garland said.

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