GOP senators grill Merrick Garland in first testimony before new Congress

By A.L. Lee & Nicole Markus and Kate Walter, Medill News Service
Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before the 118th Congress for the first time on Wednesday, facing questions about the Justice Department's handling of the fentanyl crisis. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
1 of 4 | Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before the 118th Congress for the first time on Wednesday, facing questions about the Justice Department's handling of the fentanyl crisis. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

March 1 (UPI) -- Republican Senators on Wednesday grilled Attorney General Merrick Garland for the Department of Justice's handling of attacks and arrests on anti-choice protesters, the fentanyl crisis and classified documents.

Wednesday's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee marks the first time Garland has testified before the new Congress.


The DOJ has faced numerous scandals since his last testimony, including the appointment of special counsels to oversee investigations into the handling of classified documents by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Garland he felt the nation was "adrift," arguing that DOJ is not doing enough to counter crime and protect American citizens.

Republicans focused on the DOJ's prosecution of anti-choice protesters and Catholics, as well as Garland's appointment of a special counsel to investigate the found documents.


Garland justified these appointments based on the "extraordinary circumstance" of Trump's 2024 campaign announcement, and Biden's probable re-election announcement expected in the near future.

Republicans criticized Garland for failing to enact policies to stymie the epidemic, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accusing him of "cherry picking" which crimes should have a mandatory minimum sentence.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the committee, said members agree on regulating social media platforms for the sale of illegal drugs.

Garland admitted that the agency's policies were not stopping fentanyl deaths, but argued that discretion with sentencing allows it to "focus attention on things that are damaging American people in the largest possible respect."

In a series of tense questions, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Ark., asked why the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested anti-abortion protester Mark Houck for assault in his home with upwards of 20 officers in tactical gear.

"I'm deeply disappointed with the last two years," Cruz said. "In my judgment, the DOJ has been politicized to the greatest extent I have ever seen."

Garland said the series of events they presented were not consistent with the information he heard about the arrest. Houck was later acquitted of assault.


Democrats praised Garland for restoring the integrity of the Justice Department that Durbin said was previously "embroiled in scandal" under the previous administration.

"Every day, Department employees counter complex threats to our national security. They fiercely protect the civil rights of our citizens," Garland said.

"They pursue accountability for environmental harms. They prosecute crimes that victimize workers, consumers, and taxpayers. They defend our country's democratic institutions."

On violent crime, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., applauded Garland for steps the Justice Department has taken to create safer communities, pointing to the decrease in violent crime in his home city of Wilmington, Del.

However, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pressed Garland on the murder rates in cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis and Baltimore, and criticized the DOJ for not doing enough to prevent these deaths.

"Should American citizens in places like New Orleans and Baltimore and St. Louis begin to seek asylum in countries like Honduras or Guatemala?" Cotton asked.

Coming into the hearing, GOP lawmakers had been eager to slam the Justice Department's handling of the inquiries into classified documents found at the homes of President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.

Jack Smith was appointed by Garland in November to oversee the Justice Department investigation into Trump's failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and his potential mishandling of classified documents after leaving office.


Classified documents also turned up last year at Biden's former office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., and later at his home in Wilmington, Del., after which Garland appointed former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur as special counsel to investigate.

In January, classified documents were found at the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence, followed by an FBI search in February which turned up another top-secret paper.

Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the administration after it never held a briefing to detail the documents seized from Trump and Biden and after no government official indicated whether any potential damage had been done to national security.

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