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AG Garland defends DOJ's Hunter Biden investigation at House Judiciary hearing

Attorney General Merrick Garland appears before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Jacquelyn Martin
Attorney General Merrick Garland appears before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Updated September 20, 2023 at 4:22 PM ET

In an at-times combative hearing that lasted nearly six hours, House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Merrick Garland largely over the agency's investigation into Hunter Biden.

The hearing was meant to be part of the committee's standard oversight duties, but the morning's meeting between the U.S.'s top prosecutor and the panel's Republican members got heated.

As expected, Garland was badgered by Republican members with questions and accusations of political bias and interfering in investigations on behalf of the Biden family.

Congressional Republicans have long criticized Garland and his department for exactly that — even floating the ideaof opening an impeachment inquiry into Garland.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan set the tone at the start of the hearing saying: "The fix is in. Even with the face-saving indictment last week of Hunter Biden, everyone knows the fix is in."

Jordan and other GOP lawmakers called Garland out for a perceived "two-tiered" system of justice when it came to investigating Republicans and Democrats.

That's due to the investigations into President Joe Biden's handling of classified material; of his surviving son, Hunter Biden; and of former President Donald Trump.

Garland stood firm and defended his agency as well as the independent work of special counsels David Weiss, who is investigating Hunter Biden, and Jack Smith, the lead prosecutor in federal cases against Trump.

In his prepared statement to the committee, Garland said: "There is not one set of laws for the powerful and another for the powerless; one for the rich, another for the poor; one for Democrats, another for Republicans; or different rules, depending upon one's race or ethnicity or religion."

He continued, "As the President himself has said, and I reaffirm here today: I am not the President's lawyer. I will also add that I am not Congress's prosecutor."

The White House didn't mince words: This hearing was a "circus," a "sideshow" and a "distraction," Ian Sams, the White House spokesperson for oversight and investigations, said in a statement.

"Extreme House Republicans are running a not-so-sophisticated distraction campaign to try to cover up their own actions that are hurtling America to a dangerous and costly government shutdown. They cannot even pass a military funding bill because extreme House Republicans are demanding devastating cuts like slashing thousands of preschool slots nationwide and thousands of law enforcement jobs including border agents, so they cranked up a circus of a hearing full of lies and disinformation with the sole goal of baselessly attacking President Biden and his family," Sams said.

The statement continued: "Don't be fooled: they want to distract from the reality that their own chaos and inability to govern is going to shut down the government in a matter of days, hurting our economy and national security and jeopardizing everything from troop pay to fighting fentanyl. These sideshows won't spare House Republicans from bearing responsibility for inflicting serious damage on the country."

Garland objects to questions over 'Catholic extremism'

Garland, who remained largely stoic during the hearing, became emotional as he spoke personally about why he has spent his professional career in law as a prosecutor, a judge and now as the nation's top law enforcement officer. His grandmother fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe and made it to the U.S., where she was protected under the nation's laws. Other family members were not as lucky and were killed in the Holocaust, he said.

"Repaying this country for the debt my family owes for our very lives has been the focus of my entire professional life," Garland said with his voice cracking.

His family's background came up later in the hearing when Garland became visibly angry in an exchange with Republican New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew. The congressman questioned Garland over a now-withdrawn memo from the FBI's Richmond office targeting extremism in Catholic churches.

Van Drew pressed Garland and repeatedly asked, "Do you agree that traditional Catholics are violent extremists?"

Garland responded, raising his voice, "The idea that someone with my family background would discriminate against any religion is so outrageous, so absurd!"

Garland then responded that he does not believe Catholics are extremists.

Hunter Biden, as expected, was the big focus

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaks as Attorney General Merrick Garland appears before a House Judiciary Committee hearing Sept. 20, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaks as Attorney General Merrick Garland appears before a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The younger Biden has been the subject of an investigation led by special counsel Weiss since 2019.

His special counsel designation came after a plea deal between Biden and federal prosecutors fell apart. As part of the plea deal, Biden would have avoided prosecution on a felony firearm offense.

But earlier this month, Biden was indicted on felony gun charges.

As the investigation was ongoing, two IRS agents came forward and accused the DOJ publicly of giving Biden preferential treatment and slow-walking the investigation.

This added fuel to Republicans' assertion that the DOJ is protecting the Biden family from criminal prosecution.

At the hearing, Garland repeatedly denied interfering in the ongoing Biden probe and was never instructed to charge Trump with several federal crimes.

Garland avoided speaking at length about Weiss and the still-open investigation. He said said, several times, that he would rather have Weiss, a Trump appointee, speak on the investigation.

As part of the committee's inquiry into this investigation, the panel plans to bring Weiss in for questioning later this fall.

As Jordan said in an interview with the Washington Examiner this week, a focus for the committee was also on special counsel Smith, who has led the federal investigation into Trump.

Jordan and other Republican lawmakers have sided with Trump in his claims that he did nothing wrong and that Smith and the DOJ are interfering in the 2024 election by prosecuting the former president.

Garland doesn't totally escape criticism by Dems

Democrats largely offered Garland an opportunity to defend the agency and to speak of the work the DOJ has done outside of Biden and Trump indictments.

Committee Ranking Member Rep. Jerry Nadler said instead of focusing on the issues facing the nation, "House Republicans will use their time today to talk about long-discredited conspiracy theories and Hunter Biden's laptop. And they will do it because they care more about Donald Trump than they do about their own constituents."

Garland didn't completely escape criticism from Democrats, however.

Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat that represents St. Louis, critiqued the DOJ on its position on incarceration, the death penalty, Bureau of Prisons oversight and other criminal justice issues, saying their approach contributes to mass incarceration.

She said that prosecutors, who ultimately report back to Garland, are continuing to "disproportionately prosecute disproportionately Black and brown people" in her district and elsewhere for low-level narcotics, immigration and firearm offenses.

"Under your watch the federal incarceration rate has increased for the first time in nearly a decade," she said. "Meanwhile corporate crime enforcement is lower than it was during the Trump administration. The department needs to rethink its entire approach to prosecution."

She quickly added that she does support the agency's work in prosecuting Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.