Attorney General Merrick Garland deflected questions about whether the Justice Department is investigating legal violations by former President Donald Trump and about the reach of the ongoing probe into the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6 at his first congressional oversight hearing since he arrived to run the Justice Department seven months ago.
Garland, who had been an appeals court judge for more than two decades before joining the Biden administration this year, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that he is laboring to keep the Justice Department out of politics after four years of chaos during the Trump presidency.
"The Department of Justice has a long-standing policy of not commenting on investigations," Garland said. "I'm going to have to rest on that."
Democratic lawmakers pushed Garland to defend congressional interests as a criminal contempt of Congress referral for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon makes its way to the Justice Department this week.
Citing executive privilege, Bannon is refusing to cooperate with the congressional panel investigating Jan. 6 insurrection, even though he had not worked in the Trump White House for years at the time of the riot. Garland pledged that the acting U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia would follow the facts and the law, but did not otherwise show his hand on the issue.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., also pressed the attorney general about why the Justice Department decided to weigh in on behalf of Trump in a civil case filed by E. Jean Carroll alleging the former president sexually assaulted her and later defamed her.
Sometimes being attorney general, or a judge, Garland replied, "means taking positions with respect to the law that are required by the law which you would not take as a private citizen."
Republicans press on plans to support school staff who are facing threats
Multiple Republican members of the committee focused on a recent memo by Garland that calls on the FBI and other Justice Department officials to monitor and take action against violent threats made against teachers, school board members and others.
GOP lawmakers and conservative media outlets have accused Garland of labeling parents as domestic terrorists and calling for their prosecution. The attorney general said he never used those words in his memo. Rather, he said, the department is trying to prevent violence as threats proliferate against school workers, election staffers and others.
"The Justice Department supports the First Amendment rights of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish," Garland said. "That's not what this memo is about."
"Will FBI agents be attending local school board meetings?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the top GOP member on the panel.
"No, FBI agents will not be attending local school board meetings," Garland said.
GOP Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana accused Garland of having a potential conflict of interest because his son-in-law co-founded a company that does business with school districts across the nation. But the attorney general forcefully denied any conflict, pointing out that his memo has nothing to do with corporate interests.
"I am exquisitely aware of the ethics requirements," Garland said. "I have followed them and lived with them for 25 years."
Garland gives updates on other investigations, including Jan. 6 probe
The attorney general batted back queries about the department's ongoing tax investigation of Hunter Biden, the president's son, and whether DOJ might appoint a special counsel to lead that probe. The U.S. attorney in Delaware has been working on the investigation and has remained on the job through the transition into the Biden presidency.
Garland also confirmed that current special counsel John Durham is continuing his work on issues surrounding the 2016 election, as his budget for this fiscal year has been approved. Durham has charged two people so far: a former FBI attorney who pleaded guilty and a Washington lawyer who is fighting a single false statements charge.
Federal prosecutors have charged 650 people so far in the investigation into the events of Jan. 6, what Garland calls one of the "largest and most expansive in our history." The attorney general said he had heard criticism all over the map from judges and members of the public who argue that DOJ has been too harsh or too lenient on some of those defendants.
"I'm extremely proud of the work prosecutors and agents are doing in this case," Garland said. "They're working 24/7."