As attorney general, Garland vows to tackle domestic extremism

If the United States had not taken in Merrick Garland’s grandmother when she fled anti-Semitism in Europe, it’s not just that he would be living in Belarus. He wouldn’t be living at all, he says. 

“My grandparents knew that they owed their lives to the willingness of America to take them in. And the same is true for me,” Judge Garland told University of New Hampshire (UNH) law school students in a talk last fall. “The reason that I and my siblings and my parents try to do as much public service and as much community service as we could was to pay the country back for the sanctuary that it provided to my family.” 

When the Harvard-trained lawyer got a call back in 1989 asking him to quit his private practice and come work for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., Mr. Garland said yes, leaving his law firm office for a windowless cubbyhole studded with stale cigarette butts.

Why We Wrote This

Merrick Garland’s handling of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation was a turning point in his career – and may offer clues as to how he’ll proceed as his department begins investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

It wasn’t the last time his commitment to public service would be tested. After Mr. Garland won widespread praise for his handling of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation in 1995, his nomination to become a U.S. circuit judge in Washington, D.C., languished for 18 months before the Senate confirmed him. President Barack Obama thrice considered nominating him for a Supreme Court appointment; when Mr. Obama finally did, the Republican-led Senate refused to hold a confirmation hearing before the 2016 election, which ushered in President Donald Trump and a trio of conservative justices. 

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed him 70-30 to a job that he described in a Feb. 22 hearing as “the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back [the United States].”

Four decades earlier, fresh off a Harvard Law School education that he financed in part by selling his prized collection of Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four comic books for $1,000, there was no guarantee he would rise to such an influential position.

“I was sent to Oklahoma City”

In 1979, the young lawyer landed a job “in the room where it happens,” as the saying goes. He was the special assistant to the attorney general of the United States in the post-Watergate era, amid the development of a set of norms intended to protect the independence of the department. “But you don’t actually get to do anything about what happened, except give peanut gallery advice,” he told UNH students in his talk, a Zoom event moderated by one of his former clerks, Maggie Goodlander, an adjunct professor of constitutional law at UNH’s Franklin Pierce School of Law.

Cuomo, Democrats, and the politics of personal conduct

Fast-forward to April 19, 1995, and he was once again in the room, but this time he was no longer relegated to the peanut gallery. As top deputy to the deputy attorney general of the United States, he got an email that a gas explosion had occurred at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which housed numerous agencies as well as a day-care center.

Ten minutes later came the update: It was a bomb, not a gas explosion. Images starting coming through on CNN that reminded him of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 American military personnel. The U.S. attorney general in Oklahoma City had just become a federal judge, and the acting attorney general was a civil attorney.

“I was in the room … when the acting U.S. attorney called Attorney General [Janet] Reno and said, ‘You have to send somebody,’” he told the UNH students. “I had a lot of experience filing crime cases – I was the only one in the room who did – and I was sent to Oklahoma City.”

By the time Mr. Garland arrived, the FBI had a strong lead on Timothy McVeigh. Mr. Garland, the top DOJ official deployed to Oklahoma City, was taken to an Air Force base where Mr. McVeigh was brought for his first presentment.

Mr. Garland, determined to squelch any conspiracy theories, demanded that the press be allowed into the briefing room on the base. The FBI backed him up, and the Air Force eventually relented. Mr. McVeigh, a 26-year-old Gulf War veteran angered by the government’s 1993 siege on the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, that left 76 dead, was charged with the bombing of the building. 

When Mr. Garland was taken to the bomb site, he recalls it looking like a “battleground,” with National Guard troops stationed around it. People were worried it could be the beginning of a larger spate of domestic terrorism.

Mr. Garland insisted on doing everything “by the book,” requiring a subpoena even when people offered to hand over evidence, and requiring a second warrant to search a car for a second time, the Los Angeles Times reported. Donna Bucella, former director of the executive office for United States attorneys, who was on the ground with him in Oklahoma City, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that he also made sure the applications for wiretaps, search warrants, and other investigative tools were reviewed and approved by each federal district where the evidence was sought, as well as by the FBI & DOJ. He welcomed and listened to diverse opinions, she added.

Indeed, many Republicans, and even the lawyers for Mr. McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols, praised his work. 

Mr. McVeigh was convicted along with Mr. Nichols and was executed in 2001. Mr. Nichols was given a life sentence without parole. Some 168 people were killed in the bombing, and Mr. Garland spent significant time meeting with survivors.

“The work that he did after the bombing in 1995 for Oklahoma, Oklahomans have never forgotten,” says GOP Sen. James Lankford, who represents the state and voted to confirm Mr. Garland. “He was very engaged. He was very good.”

Don Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general during George W. Bush’s presidency, described Mr. Garland in a letter supporting his 1997 confirmation as someone “driven more by a sense of public service than of personal aggrandizement.”

“My own service in the Justice Department during the last two Republican Administrations convinced me that government suffers greatly from a shortage of people combining such exceptional abilities with a primary drive to serve interests beyond their own,” Mr. Ayer wrote, urging the Senate to seize the opportunity to add him to the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was confirmed 76-23 amid GOP opposition to adding another judge to the circuit at that time. 

Policing and voting reforms

In this round of confirmation hearings, Democrats presented Judge Garland as a brilliant and fair advocate for justice, and particularly well suited to the task of investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“He is personally driven to root out hate – and to, especially, stop its most violent manifestation in the terrorism of our fellow Americans,” says Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Mr. Garland, who showed no public bitterness over the GOP’s thwarting of his Supreme Court nomination nearly five years ago, also won support from some Republican senators before his confirmation Tuesday as attorney general – including Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who praised him for also recognizing the persistent threat of foreign terrorism. 

But not all were convinced he’d be the right person to take the helm of the Justice Department as a major investigation into domestic extremism gets underway.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee and one of a handful of senators who on Jan. 6 objected to the Electoral College results from two battleground states that President Donald Trump lost in 2020, said he was disappointed that Judge Garland did not characterize left-wing assaults on the federal courthouse in Portland and the violence directed against numerous law enforcement officers as domestic terrorism.

Though the new attorney general was seen as a more centrist choice than some progressives were hoping for, some Republicans worried the Biden administration will use the Department of Justice to usher in sweeping reforms to policing and voting that Democrats say are necessary to combat systemic racism and voter suppression. They point in particular to how his more liberal deputies could steer the department, including civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, Mr. Biden’s nominee for the No. 3 slot at the DOJ who faced a tough grilling from GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee March 9.

Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, another GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, pressed Mr. Garland on how exactly he would define systemic racism. The judge responded that it signified discrimination and widespread disparate treatment of communities of color caused by a combination of historic impact, unconscious bias, and sometimes conscious bias. 

“I’m thinking it through in terms of whether he has what it takes to run the Justice Department in a fair and equitable manner – and that means fair to all Americans,” says Senator Kennedy. “What worries me about many – not all, but many – of my Democratic friends is they just don’t seem to care about average middle-class Americans unless they’re part of a specific minority that they deem worthy. And I think we’re all worthy in America.”  

Still, amid fears of a resurgence in domestic extremism, Mr. Garland’s widely praised handling of the Oklahoma City bombing as well as his role in bringing the elusive Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, to justice the following year, suggests he will pursue the Jan. 6 investigation in a serious way that has a chance of winning bipartisan approval.

Prosecutors have so far charged more than 300 individuals in the attack, including Justice Department indictments against members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Judge Garland has pledged to make the investigation his top priority upon taking office.

“If anything was necessary to refocus our attention on white supremacists, that was the attack on the Capitol,” he told Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the hearings. “I expect to put all departmental resources necessary to combat this problem into this area, to make sure both our agents and our prosecutors have the numbers and the resources to accomplish that mission.”

Jamie Gorelick, who was Judge Garland’s boss and the No. 2 official at the DOJ when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, says in an interview that his collaborative approach enabled him to coordinate many different agencies in the wake of the bombing – an approach she says will be needed in the Jan. 6 investigation as well. 

In addition to possessing a passion for justice and ensuring the nation’s security, she identifies another reason for Judge Garland’s determination when it comes to investigating such cases. 

“He saw domestic terrorism up close, and he knows how divisive and terrifying it can be – and therefore that it must be addressed,” she says. 

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