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Garland Says Jan. 6 Probe Would Be Top Priority If Confirmed As Attorney General

Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Updated at 4:20 p.m. ET

President Biden's pick to lead the Justice Department, Merrick Garland, told lawmakers Monday that the investigation into the Capitol insurrection would be a top priority if he is confirmed as attorney general.

Garland, a widely respected judge who has served for more than 20 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said the attack on the Capitol was the most "heinous attack" on American democracy that he's ever seen.

"One of the very first things I will do is get a briefing on the progress of this investigation," Garland said. "I intend to give the career prosecutors who are working on this matter 24/7 all the resources they could possibly require to do this."

Garland also said he wants to look more broadly at the roots of extremism and which groups could pose problems in the future. He has experience dealing with the topic, having overseen the federal investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing earlier in his career.

As for the Capitol probe, he said investigators will begin with people on the ground, but will work their way up to those who are further involved and "pursue these leads wherever they take us."

Garland has won support from Democrats and Republicans alike, who point to his deep legal knowledge, temperament and experience. He is expected to win the panel's approval and be confirmed with bipartisan support in a final confirmation vote by the full Senate next month.

"Not the president's lawyer"

If he is confirmed, Garland will have no shortage of challenges to tackle, including ensuring civil rights and racial justice for all Americans.

In his opening statement, Garland acknowledged the central importance of that mission.

"Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution and climate change," he said.

But he also would take the helm of a department battered by four years of turmoil during the Trump administration.

Legal experts and former DOJ officials accused former Attorney General William Barr of politicizing the department and using it as a tool against then-President Trump's opponents.

Garland did not directly address Barr's actions, but he said he would ensure equal justice under the law for all Americans, and he vowed to lead the department with integrity and to protect its independence from political influence.

"I can assure you that I do not regard myself as anything other than the lawyer for the people of the United States," he said. "I am not the president's lawyer."

More than once, the said it would be his job as attorney general to protect the department's career lawyers from political influence — a message to the public as well as the DOJ's 115,000 employees.

Garland knows the Justice Department well, having worked there at various points before becoming a judge.

Early in his career, he worked as a special assistant to the attorney general and later as a line prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C.

During the Clinton administration, he served as a senior official in the deputy attorney general's office. In that role, he oversaw the prosecutions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

Garland then joined the federal bench in 1997.

He was nominated by then-President Barack Obama for a spot on the Supreme Court in 2016, but Republicans in the Senate refused to give him a hearing.

Politically sensitive probes

At Monday's hearing, Republicans pressed Garland for assurances on two politically sensitive investigations that he would inherit from the Trump administration: the special counsel's investigation into the origins of the Russia probe and the criminal investigation into Biden's son, Hunter.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley, sought Garland's assurances that John Durham's Russia probe would be allowed to proceed and that a final report would be made public.

"I don't have any information about the investigation as I sit here today," Garland said, adding that one of the first things he'll do, if confirmed, is meet with Durham to discuss his investigation.

He said he has no reason to believe Durham shouldn't remain in place. As for releasing a final report, Garland deflected, saying he believes in transparency but would need to talk with Durham first.

On the Hunter Biden investigation, Garland said he had not discussed the matter with President Biden. But he said the president had assured him he would be able to serve as attorney general without interference from the White House.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.