U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies on Wednesday before a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 27 (UPI) -- U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland tangled at times with lawmakers over issues including COVID-19 mandates during a Senate oversight hearing Wednesday.
At the hearing, Garland was asked by the Senate judiciary committee about a department memo that addressed rising violence at local school board meetings over pandemic restrictions.
In the memo, Garland directed federal officials to establish lines of communication with school boards and law enforcement to report threats. The memo followed a letter from the National School Boards Association to President Joe Biden that asked for federal help in stopping the violence.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the panel's ranking Republican, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, keyed in on Garland over the memo. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., showing a photo of a parent who was pinned down by law enforcement while reporting that his daughter was sexually assaulted at a Virginia school, said Garland has "weaponized the FBI and the Department of Justice" against innocent parents and called on him to resign.
Some Republicans have said the Justice Department directive should be rescinded since the school board association later apologized for some of the language, such as a reference to domestic terrorism, in its letter to Biden.
"All it asks is for federal law enforcement to consult with, meet with local law enforcement to assess the circumstances, strategize about what may or may not be necessary to provide federal assistance, if it is necessary," Garland said.
He emphasized that the focus of the memo remains the same -- more potential violence against school boards.
"The only thing that Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence."
Garland told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that the directive spells out that the department will only intervene if federal laws were broken.
Garland also responded to a question from Cornyn about the potential "chilling impact" the memo could have on parents who sought to express concerns to their school board, stating that the memo "expressly recognizes the constitutional right to make arguments about your children's education" but notes that protection does not extend to intimidation and threats of violence.
"I don't believe it's reasonable to read this memo as chilling anyone's rights," said Garland.
Earlier, Garland also said the department is reviewing the FBI's failure to investigate sexual misconduct claims against disgraced Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar, in light of new evidence.
Some have called for two FBI agents to be criminally charged for failing to investigate Nassar when they were first approached by abuse victims, who were gymnasts, in 2015.
Garland's appearance came as he's trying to decide whether to prosecute former White House adviser Steve Bannon for defying a congressional subpoena to give testimony in a House investigation of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
"The investigation is being conducted by the prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office and by the FBI field office," Garland said Wednesday. "We have not constrained them in any way."
Garland also pushed back on allegations the department hasn't shown urgency in addressing potential terrorist threats from militant groups that have arisen in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal in August.
Garland said his department has taken steps to meet such threats, but didn't elaborate.
At the start of his testimony, Garland stressed a need to get control of "ghost guns," which authorities say are helping to spike crime rates and are being used more to commit crimes.
Ghost guns are those that can be bought online and assembled, making them virtually untraceable.