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Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies before Senate Judiciary Committee amid special counsel probes

Washington — Attorney General Merrick Garland testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing for the Justice Department, his first time facing the new Congress.

Garland touted the department's accomplishments over the past year and focused on three priorities in his opening remarks: upholding the rule of law, maintaining national security and protecting civil rights. 

The nation's top law enforcement officer also highlighted the department's work combating the rise of violent crime and hate crimes, working with Ukraine against Russia's brutal invasion and protecting reproductive freedom after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

He reminded the committee that Justice Department employees "counter complex threats to our national security" every day. 

"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." 

Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies In Senate Judiciary Committee hearing
Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1, 2023.  /Getty Images

His testimony came as the department grapples with numerous politically sensitive investigations that are likely to be brought up by senators during Wednesday's hearing, including two special counsel probes into President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump's handling of classified documents and an ongoing inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Biden's son and frequent GOP target, Hunter. The Trump special counsel, Jack Smith, is also investigating the former president's conduct surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and has subpoenaed former Vice President Mike Pence as part of the probe. 

Garland has said there is "no higher priority" for his department than ensuring those responsible for the riot are held responsible, whether they were present at the Capitol that day or not. 

Republicans in Congress have already begun comparing the two high-profile investigations into Mr. Biden and Trump, alleging unequal treatment favoring Democrats over Republicans and seeking further information about the department's decision-making. 

Senators grilled Garland about what some of them called a "two-tiered" system of justice, motivated not by facts and law, but by partisan politics. He denied that this was the way the department operated, telling them, "We treat like cases alike. We don't have one rule for Democrats or Republicans."

"These decisions are made on the merits without any policy or political interference," he added.

And Garland told the panel the investigation into Mr. Biden's son, Hunter Biden — which is being conducted by a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney in Delaware — is operating completely independently and without interference. 

The 100,000 employees of the Justice Department contend with many other issues of national import that Garland would likely hope to talk about — from measures to curb the proliferation of ghost guns in America's communities to combating China's weaponization of data and Russian-backing ransomware attacks — and Garland was able to briefly discuss their initiatives in these areas. 

The former judge-turned-attorney general was able to address some more bipartisan areas of concern, like the Justice Department's work to stem the tide of fentanyl deaths across the country and countering Russia's war in Ukraine. Specifically, on the sale and proliferation of deadly drugs on social media companies, Garland said he would work with Congress "to get the social media companies, whether it's civil or criminal, to take these kinds of things off their platforms."

Last year, the Justice Department initiated a task force to prosecute Russian oligarchs and their enablers seeking to evade U.S. sanctions and pledged support in the effort to investigate war crimes against the Ukrainian people. In February, Garland welcomed his Ukrainian counterpart to the nation's capital to announce new tactics in the international fight to counter Russia's aggression. 

On Tuesday, Biden administration officials, including Garland, began a full court press in Congress to renew a politically charged surveillance program that the U.S. government has long seen as vital in countering overseas terrorism, cyberattacks and espionage operation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

However, Garland could face opposition on this matter, since a number of congressional Republicans are suspicious of the intelligence community and believe the spy agencies unfairly used surveillance powers to undermine Trump. In Wednesday's hearing, renewing the program received vocal support from Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, but met with resistance from Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee. 

Without the act, "we would be intentionally blinding ourselves to extraordinary danger," Garland said. 

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