WASHINGTON – Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Thursday dodged questions from Democrats in Congress about whether the Justice Department would support their latest efforts in the investigation into the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill. He also fended off criticism from Republicans that he had politicized the department’s response to threats of violence arising from the debate over how race issues are taught in schools.
During his first review hearing as attorney general, Garland told the House Judiciary Committee that the special advocate appointed by the Trump administration to review the Russia investigation, John H. Durham, had his budget approved for another year, indicating that his work was in progress. And Mr Garland confirmed that the ministry’s tax investigation into President Biden’s son Hunter Biden was continuing.
He declined to provide details, citing the department’s regulations prohibiting talking about cases while they are still open.
Mr. Garland used his opening statement to guide lawmakers through the work done over the past few months to address what he sees as the department’s top priorities: upholding the rule of law, ensuring the security of the country, and protecting civil rights.
Democrats and Republicans largely ignored his snapshot and instead focused on issues that could resonate in next year’s midterm election, including investigations into the actions of former President Donald J. Trump and the role of race and other contentious issues in school curricula.
Mr Garland has faced Republicans over his stance that the Justice Department will respond to violence and threats of violence directed at school board members who have come under fire amid the nationwide debate over the school curriculum .
Republicans violently attacked him during a note he published this month which said the department would respond to the “worrying spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff In public schools by prosecuting these crimes where appropriate.
Some Republican lawmakers noted that Mr Garland released the memo shortly after public school leaders asked Mr Biden to address the safety concerns that had arisen amid the fight over how to teach to students racial inequality and injustice, suggesting that the timing of the note seemed to have been led by the White House.
Mr Garland said he did not issue the note at Mr Biden’s request.
Other Republicans said the memo had the effect of intimidating parents who expressed concerns about schools and asked if Mr. Garland intended to deploy the FBI to school board meetings.
“I have no intention of controlling school board meetings,” Garland said. He said the FBI would not police schools or intimidate parents, and he noted that the memo did not authorize such actions.
Teaching about race and racism has become an issue that has energized social conservatives, as have issues like how schools recognize health and safety policies around gender and the pandemic.
While Democrats have asked questions about gun control, inhumane detention conditions, hate crimes against Asian Americans, and voting rights, many of them have focused on the will of the Justice Department to enforce subpoenas issued by the House special committee investigating the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Garland was questioned hours before the House voted in contempt of Stephen K. Bannon for refusing to comply with the special committee’s summons. Mr. Bannon, who stepped down as senior White House adviser in 2017 but continued to advise Trump, declined to provide documents or testimony to the committee, citing executive privilege.
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The next step in the dispute is for the US prosecutor in Washington to decide whether to execute the subpoena.
Mr. Garland declined to comment on whether the Justice Department will enforce the subpoena against Mr. Bannon or to comment on how and when the Department will implement the subpoenas from Congress.
“The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances,” Garland said. “We will apply the facts and the law and make a decision consistent with the principles of prosecution. “
The Justice Department’s execution decision will have broad implications for the principle of executive privilege, as the courts have not definitively ruled on whether a president’s conversations with private citizens can be protected by virtue of such a claim of privilege. And that will have pragmatic implications for the select committee, since the outcome for Mr Bannon could influence other witnesses who have yet to comply with the panel’s subpoenas.
There are at least two Justice Department notices that generally prohibit prosecutors from applying such subpoenas against executive officials when a president has invoked privilege.