Not since Watergate has an attorney general been at the center of such a firestorm. Merrick Garland's Justice Department is prosecuting both former President Trump and the son of President Biden. Caught in the middle is this 70-year-old former prosecutor and well-respected judge with a long history as a moderate. We met Garland Friday in Washington. He told us that he devoted his life to the rule of law because of his family's struggle to escape the Holocaust. Now he's responsible for prosecutions that will shape the future of the nation. In a rare interview, the attorney general told us that in the Trump and Biden trials ahead, his prosecutors will pursue justice without fear and without favor.
Merrick Garland: We do not have one rule for Republicans and another rule for Democrats. We don't have one rule for foes and another for friends. We don't have one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless, for the rich or for the poor, based on ethnicity. We have only one rule; and that one rule is that we follow the facts and the law, and we reach the decisions required by the Constitution, and we protect civil liberties.
Scott Pelley: Are you essentially saying as attorney general to the American people, "Trust me"?
Merrick Garland: Well, in the end, I suppose it does in the end come down to trust. But it's not just me. It's decades of the-- of the norms of this department that are part of the DNA of the career prosecutors who are running the investigation and supervising the investigations that you're talking about.
Former President Trump faces two federal trials. One for allegedly hoarding classified documents and covering it up, the other, for allegedly conspiring to seize power after the 2020 election. Attorney General Garland has said little about this and we wanted to understand why.
Merrick Garland: Well, I think the first thing to understand is because these are pending cases, because there are two federal indictments, the longstanding rule in the Justice Department is that we can't comment about pending cases
Scott Pelley: Where does that rule come from? What's the point?
Merrick Garland: One reason is to protect the privacy and the civil liberties of the person who's under investigation. It's to protect witnesses who also may or may not become public later in an investigation. And then finally, it's to protect the investigation itself. Investigations proceed in many different directions, eventually coming to a fruition, a decision to charge or not charge about a particular thing or not. And if witnesses and potential subjects knew everything that the investigators had previously looked at and were about to look at, it could well change testimony. It could well make witnesses unavailable to us.
Scott Pelley: And this is not peculiar to the Trump investigations?
Merrick Garland: This is the rule for all investigations. This is part of what we call our Justice manual. It's been there for probably at least 30 years and probably longer than that.
Scott Pelley: Help us understand the timing. These prosecutions of the former president are happening during the campaign. You could make the argument that it's the worst possible time.
Merrick Garland: The Justice Department has general practices about not making significant, overt steps or charging within a month or so of an election, and we are clearly outside that-- that time frame in these cases. Prosecutors, special counsel they follow the facts and the law where they lead. When they've-- gotten the-- amount of evidence necessary to make a charging decision and they've decided that a charge is warranted, that's when they bring their cases.
Scott Pelley: The investigation itself has determined the timing?
Merrick Garland: Yes. Exactly right.
Scott Pelley: Your critics say that it's timed to ruin Mr. Trump's chances in the election.
Merrick Garland: Well, that's absolutely not true. Justice Department prosecutors are nonpartisan. They don't allow partisan considerations to play any role in their determinations.
The prosecutor in the Trump cases is Jack Smith. He was named by Garland to be special counsel – that's a job under the regulations of the Justice Department designed to give Smith broad independence from the department and from the White House.
Merrick Garland: The most important aspect of the regulations is that the special counsel is not subject to the day-to-day supervision of anyone in the Justice Department.
Scott Pelley: You are not in communication with the president or any member of his administration with regard to the investigation of Former President Trump?
Merrick Garland: No, I am not.
Scott Pelley: If President Biden asked you to take action with regard to the Trump investigation, what would your reaction be?
Merrick Garland: I am sure that that will not happen, but I would not do anything in that regard. And if necessary, I would resign. But there is no sense that anything like that will happen.
Scott Pelley: Have you ever had to tell him, "Hands off these investigations, Mr. President"?
Merrick Garland: No because he has never tried to put hands on these investigations.
Separately, President Biden, himself, is the subject of a special counsel investigation into whether he improperly held classified documents after he was vice president. His son, Hunter Biden, is the target of a four year investigation into his business deals and his taxes. He's been indicted, for lying about drug abuse when he bought a gun. Republicans accuse special counsel David Weiss of slow-walking the Hunter Biden investigation.
Scott Pelley: The allegation is, Mr. Attorney General, that what is described in some quarters as the Biden Justice Department is taking it easy on the president's son.
Merrick Garland: Well, look. This investigation began under David Weiss. David Weiss is a longstanding career prosecutor, and he was appointed by Mr. Trump as the United States attorney for the district of Delaware. I promised at my nomination hearing that I would continue him on in that position and that I would not interfere with his investigation.
Scott Pelley: You are not participating in those decisions?
Merrick Garland: No, Mr. Weiss is making those decisions.
Scott Pelley: The White House is not attempting to influence those decisions?
Merrick Garland: Absolutely not.
And, he said, we won't have to take his word for it. Under Justice Department regulations, a special counsel must write a final report.
Merrick Garland: Which I will make public to the extent. permissible under the law, that is required to explain their prosecutive decisions, their decisions to prosecute or not prosecute and their strategic decisions along the way. Usually, the special counsels have testified at the end of their reports, and I expect that that will be the case here.
Scott Pelley: How's your relationship with the president? It must be frosty.
Merrick Garland: I have a good working relationship with the president.
Good, perhaps, but maybe not close. The president addressed the question in August, when he spotted garland at a White House event.
President Biden at White House event: Attorney General Garland, I haven't seen you in a long while, good to see you. Secretary of Homeland…you think I'm kidding, I'm not. (LAUGHTER)
Attorney General Garland leads 115,000 employees prosecutors, agents of the FBI, and other federal law enforcement. Additional security is now assigned to protect judges and prosecutors after the Trump cases drew death threats. Political violence is among Garland's gravest concerns.
Merrick Garland: People can argue with each other as much as they want and as vociferously as they want. But the one thing they may not do is use violence and threats of violence to alter the outcome. An important aspect of this is the American people themselves. American people must protect each other. They must ensure that they treat each other with civility and kindness, listen to opposing views, argue as vociferously as they want, but refrain from violence and threats of violence. That's the only way this democracy will survive.
Scott Pelley: Why do you feel so strongly about that?
Merrick Garland: Well, I feel it for a number of reasons and a number of things that I've seen. But for my own family, who-- who-- fled religious persecution in Europe and some members who did not-- survive. When they got to the United States, United States protected them. It guaranteed-- that they could practice their religion, that they could vote, they could do all the things they thought a democracy would provide. That's the difference between this country and many other countries. And it's my responsibility, it's the Justice Department's responsibility to ensure that that difference continues, that we protect each other.
Scott Pelley: Two of your ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust.
Merrick Garland: Yes.
Scott Pelley: Is that why you devoted yourself to the law?
Merrick Garland: Yes. That's-- I would say that's why I devoted myself to the rule of law-- to public service-- to trying to ensure that the rule of law governs this country and continues to govern this country.
Merrick Garland has spent a life in the law. At Justice, he oversaw the Oklahoma City bombing case an act of political terrorism. Later, after nearly two decades as a federal appeals court judge he was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Obama. But Republicans stalled the nomination for ten months until Donald Trump was sworn in. President-elect Biden picked Garland for attorney general on the same day the Capitol was attacked. That became one of the largest investigations in the department's history.
Merrick Garland: We've arrested and brought charges against more than 1,100 people. There are-- more to come. The videos that every single person happened to have on their phones that security cameras had, that bystanders had, that the media had at the time disclose faces, some of which we have not yet been able to connect to people.
Scott Pelley: You're looking for new suspects, new defendants, still?
Merrick Garland: Yeah. That's not that they're new suspects, but they are people that we haven't found yet.
Scott Pelley: Why do these prosecutions mean so much to you?
Merrick Garland: Because this is a fundamental aspect of our democracy. If we can't ensure that this kind of behavior doesn't recur, it will occur. The prosecutions we bring are deterrents against that from happening.
Garland knows he will be vilified no matter how the Trump and Biden cases are decided. His job he told us, was to "take the arrows" for the department. He has learned to embrace the pain that comes with the job. And we saw that at DEA headquarters where he was surrounded by those lost to the opioid epidemic and their grieving families. Meeting them, he told us, reminds him of why he fights and whom he is fighting for.
Merrick Garland: I represent the American people. I don't represent the president. I represent the American people. And likewise, I am not Congress's prosecutor. I work for the American people.
And if 'democracy' is an emotional subject for Merrick Garland, maybe it's because he has witnessed how suddenly it can be threatened, in Oklahoma City and Washington D.C.
Scott Pelley: When the history of this extraordinary time is written, what is the best that Merrick Garland can hope for?
Merrick Garland: I think it's the best any public servant can hope for: that we've done our best. That we pass on a Justice Department that continues to pursue the rule of law and protect it. And it's the same thing that every generation has to hope-- that we can pass our democracy on in working order to the next generation that picks up the torch and is responsible when we're finished-- to continue that job.
Produced by Pat Milton and Aaron Weisz. Associate producer, Ian Flickinger. Broadcast associates, Michelle Karim and Eliza Costas. Edited by Peter M. Berman. Assistant editor, Aisha Crespo.
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