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Senators Question Merrick Garland During Confirmation Hearing For Attorney General

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Merrick Garland was on Capitol Hill today for his confirmation hearing.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I am honored to appear before you today as the president's nominee to be the attorney general.

KELLY: If he's confirmed, Garland would take over a Justice Department battered after four tumultuous years during the Trump administration. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was watching today. He's with us now.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Most of us know Merrick Garland as the man who was nominated to the Supreme Court back in 2016. He never got a hearing for that job. What else should we know about him?

LUCAS: Well, he spent the past 24 years as a federal appeals court judge here in D.C. His Supreme Court nomination, of course, didn't work out because Republicans blocked it. He's now up for attorney general and leading the Justice Department. Well, that's an institution that he knows well. He worked at the department before he joined the federal bench. He worked as a line prosecutor at one point. He worked later as a senior official at Main Justice. In that latter role, he notably oversaw the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing.

KELLY: Now, of course, these last four years, there has been so much controversy involving the Justice Department, including that central question of whether the department was being used as a political weapon. What sort of vision did Merrick Garland lay out today for how he would run it?

LUCAS: Well, this question was certainly front and center. The top Democrat on the committee, Dick Durbin, called this an existential moment for the Justice Department, for its reputation and its morale. And Garland certainly recognizes the recent turmoil, and he told senators that under his leadership, the department would be independent from partisan politics.

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GARLAND: I can assure you I do not regard myself as anything other than the lawyer for the people of the United States. I am not the president's lawyer.

LUCAS: Several times, Garland said that it would be his job as attorney general to protect the department's career prosecutors and investigators from political interference. That was a message to the public, but arguably more importantly, it was a message to Justice Department employees as well because morale at the department has certainly taken a hit in recent years.

KELLY: All right - a reminder that he's addressing several audiences there, including - along with the senators who were actually conducting the hearing. Where does Merrick Garland want to start if he's confirmed? What would be his top priority?

LUCAS: Well, he said his top priority for him, if he's confirmed, would be the Capitol insurrection investigation.

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GARLAND: Senator, I think this was the most heinous attack on the democratic processes that I've ever seen and one that I never expected to see in my lifetime.

LUCAS: He said his first briefing would be on the investigation and he would make sure that prosecutors who are working 24/7 have everything that they need for this probe. He also said that he wants to look more broadly at the domestic extremism problem. But he also talked about other issues. He talked about civil rights and racial justice. In his opening statement, he said that communities of color still face discrimination today in things like housing and education and the criminal justice system. And he said the Justice Department has a key role to play to ensure that civil rights and equal protection under the law exist for all Americans.

KELLY: And meanwhile, he's going to inherit two ongoing, very politically sensitive investigations, right?

LUCAS: That's right. One is led by special counsel John Durham. That's looking at the origins of the Russia investigation. The other is by the U.S. attorney in Delaware into President Biden's son Hunter. Republicans pressed Garland on both of these for assurances that they wouldn't be interfered with. Garland said he needs to get briefed on both these probes, but he said he doesn't see any reason to curtail them. And he noted that the prosecutors leading them have been kept in place despite the change in administration. Republicans seemed OK with his answers. And this was at root an uncontentious hearing and, I think, in large part because Garland has respect from both sides of the aisle.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.