The convergence of investigations against former President Trump, led by the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida for classified materials, has put Attorney General Merrick Garland at the center of a political storm.
Republicans, led by former President Trump, have attacked Garland’s Justice Department as politically motivated and vowed to investigate his actions if the party retakes the House in November.
Democrats have mostly given Garland the space to do his job, but some liberals have argued there is already clear evidence to indict Trump and questioned why the attorney general is not pressing forward.
For some experts and those who know Garland, the former judge’s demeanor makes him the right man for the job at a time when all eyes are on him.
“I don’t think he’s paralyzed and afraid to act,” said Alan Morrison, an associate dean at George Washington University Law School who has known Garland for years. “Getting the search warrant was a big step against the former president. He’s shown he’s willing to take significant action. But I think the country is better off having a cautious person there than somebody who would have made a decision just to make a decision.”
After four years of the Trump Justice Department facing political pressure from the president and being accused of tilting the scales to benefit the party in the White House, President Biden pledged to restore a sense of independence to the agency and appointed Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 but never got a hearing from Republicans.
Garland was confirmed with a bipartisan vote, 70-30, in March 2021. But efforts to depoliticize the Justice Department have run into a major obstacle with a burst of activity in investigations into Trump, thrusting Garland into the spotlight.
Some Democrats had already been airing frustrations over what they viewed as a glacial pace in probing Trump’s actions around Jan. 6, 2021. Those criticisms bubbled to the surface as a House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol held public hearings with damning new allegations about Trump’s rhetoric before the 6th and inaction on the day of the attack.
The FBI’s August search of Mar-a-Lago to recover highly sensitive government materials that Trump had taken with him has only added to the clamor from some liberals for Garland to take action against the former president.
Adding to the criticism, James Zirin, a former federal prosecutor who served in former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (D) administration, wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill that Garland may have made a misstep in the Justice Department’s handling of the Mar-a-Lago case after Judge Aileen Cannon ruled a special master should be appointed to sift through seized documents.
Meanwhile, Garland and his agency have taken fire from Republicans who have almost universally rallied around Trump and accused the attorney general and FBI director of leading a political witch hunt.
Some Republican lawmakers have pledged to investigate Garland if the GOP retakes the House majority in November. Others have broadly bemoaned that the attorney general has “weaponized” the Justice Department in approving the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, even though it followed months of attempts to get the sensitive documents back from Trump.
Trump himself has not directly called out the attorney general, but he has been unrelenting in accusing the FBI and Justice Department more broadly of targeting him out of concern he may run for president again in 2024.
“What they did is terrible,” Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday. “And I don’t think the people are going to stand for it. If you noticed, the poll numbers are the highest they’ve ever been. The people are not going to stand for this stuff. They’ve weaponized the Department of Justice and FBI.”
Garland for his part has steadfastly avoided weighing in publicly unless he believes it is absolutely necessary, as was the case after the FBI conducted its search of Mar-a-Lago.
He has pushed back on the idea that he or his team will be influenced by political considerations or public pressure one way or another.
“The only pressure that I, my prosecutors, or the agents feel is the pressure to do the right thing,” Garland told NBC News in a rare interview in July. “That’s the only way we can pursue the rule of law, that’s the only way we can keep the confidence of the American people in the rule of law, which is an essential part of our democratic system.”
Biden formally introduced Garland as his pick to lead the Justice Department on Jan. 7, 2021, one day after the riots at the Capitol. Given the timing, and the fact that the Mar-a-Lago case only recently came into public view, experts argued Garland was clearly not chosen with his ability to withstand public pressure about Trump-related probes in mind.
But the former president was always going to hang over much of what the Biden Justice Department did given various investigations into Trump’s finances, his claims about the 2020 election and his conduct on Jan. 6.
“They are clearly tough-minded and not treating Trump as if he’s above the law,” said Matt Bennett, a former staffer in the Clinton White House and co-founder of the think tank Third Way. “But they are also incredibly prudent, sensitive to the charge of politicizing the department. It’s a tough balance, but I think he’s getting it all right.”