Merrick Garland confirmed as attorney general in 70-30 Senate vote; Capitol inquiry awaits
The Senate confirmed attorney general nominee Merrick Garland Wednesday in a strong bi-partisan 70-30 vote, sending the federal appeals court judge to the Justice Department where he has pledged to shield the agency from politics and make the sprawling investigation into the deadly U.S. Capitol assault his “first priority.”
The margin of confirmation was the largest for an attorney general since Eric Holder, who secured 75 votes when he was confirmed as the nation's chief law enforcement officer in the Obama administration.
Denied a hearing after he was nominated to Supreme Court almost five years ago, Garland received the votes of 20 Republicans on Wednesday, including members of the party's leadership.
“Merrick Garland is determined to write a new chapter of public service in his life – and the Senate has finally given him that opportunity," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "He is the right person for this moment in history to lead the Department of Justice.”
Among those who opposed the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Garland "did not make clear" that he would safeguard the department against political intervention.
“It is nevertheless my hope as the new attorney general, Merrick Garland will lead the Department of Justice with a commitment to integrity and fidelity to the rule of law," Cruz said.
Garland, who last served as a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, was met with little Republican resistance during his confirmation hearing this month, with some lauding the nominee as “a very good pick” to lead a department roiled by politics during the Trump administration.
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Following his swearing-in, Garland becomes the 86th attorney general of the United States.
“I am not the president’s lawyer,” Garland told lawmakers last week. “My job is to protect the Department of Justice."
That job, as outlined in his Senate testimony this month, may be unlike any other facing an incoming attorney general.
Garland has said that his first briefing as attorney general would focus on the Capitol riot investigation, one of the largest inquiries in department history.
While more than 300 suspects have been charged so far, crucial questions remain about the level of coordination, including whether lawmakers or other officials may have assisted rioters in the days before the siege.
Federal authorities also have yet to bring charges in the murder of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, and this week the FBI made a fresh appeal for the public's assistance in its pursuit of a suspect who planted pipe bombs near the Republican and Democratic national committee headquarters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on the night before the attack.
Some officials have suggested that the bombs, which were discovered Jan. 6, may have been intended to draw crucial police resources away from the Capitol.
What about Trump?
Garland could also be confronted with pointed inquiries about whether the Justice Department should investigate and potentially prosecute former President Donald Trump for inciting the riot.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., all but threw Trump’s fate to the Justice Department last month when the Senate acquitted the former president at his impeachment trial.
“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell, R-Ky., said after the Senate trial. “No question about it. ... He didn’t get away with anything, yet."
Not since Watergate
A formidable task awaits in bolstering the morale of an agency that had been at the center of a rolling crisis during the Trump administration when the president openly sought to use the department to further his political interests.
Immediately after his nomination, and during his confirmation hearing, Garland signaled the urgency of that task, drawing parallels to the post-Watergate era when the Justice Department faced a similar challenge to separate itself from the political interests of a president.
"Many of the policies that the Justice Department developed during those (post-Watergate) years are the foundation for reaffirming the norms that will ensure that the department adheres to the rule of law," Garland told senators earlier this month.
"These are policies that protect the independence of the department from partisan influence in law enforcement, that strictly regulate communications with the White House."
Hunter Biden tax investigation
A test of that commitment looms in the federal tax investigation involving the president's son Hunter Biden and the pending inquiry into the origins of the Russian investigation led by Connecticut federal prosecutor John Durham, appointed by Trump Attorney General William Barr.
Asked about Hunter Biden at his confirmation, Garland said he had not discussed the case with President Joe Biden.
“I have not,” Garland said. “The president made abundantly clear in every public statement before and after my nomination that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.”
The influence of politics has been a running theme in the confirmation hearings of not only Garland but for deputy attorney general nominee Lisa Monaco and associate attorney general pick Vanita Gupta in their joint hearing Tuesday. If confirmed, they would be the second and third highest-ranking officials at the department.
"I understand that the Justice Department holds a unique place in our government," Monaco told senators. "It is an executive agency that implements the president’s lawful policy objectives – policy objectives, not political objectives. It is also an independent investigator and prosecutor, and, in this function, must act free from any political or partisan influence."