After several letdowns for progressives from the Department of Justice, a group of House Democrats is delivering a simple message to Attorney General Merrick Garland this week: do better.
On Monday, nine lawmakers, led by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA), sent a letter to Garland expressing their “deep concern” over what they called his “apparent reluctance to correct the weaponization and politicization of the Department of Justice by the Trump administration.”
Jayapal and Lieu were joined by Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Mondaire Jones (D-NY), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), and Hank Johnson (D-GA). All are members of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the DOJ. (Two-thirds of their Democratic colleagues on the committee, including their chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), did not sign on to the letter.)
Much of the lawmakers’ concern centers on the department’s continued protection of Donald Trump under President Joe Biden. Exhibit A is the defense of Trump in the defamation suit brought against the ex-president by E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of raping her in the 1990s. The use of DOJ attorneys and resources to defend Trump, approved by former Attorney General Bill Barr last year, outraged Democrats at the time.
The Judiciary Democrats argue Garland’s decision to stand by that defense “implies that the agency is continuing to either act as the former President’s personal attorney or that federal officials are immune from civil liability if inflammatory or discriminatory statements unrelated to their official duties are made during their time in office.”
The lawmakers also told Garland they were troubled by the DOJ’s request to dismiss lawsuits filed against Trump and Barr over federal law enforcement’s violent removal of Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington in June 2020. They argued the move sends a message that “any President may use brutality against protestors who disagree with their positions.”
Beyond DOJ actions that touch Trump’s personal legal liability, the Democratic lawmakers took issue with what they view as Garland’s troubling extension of Trump administration policy.
While they praised Garland for the work he’d done to “reverse numerous” positions of the prior administration, they castigated his department for announcing it would “vigorously” defend the Department of Education in a case to uphold religious universities’ freedom to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Democrats wrote that the move undermines the Biden administration’s “stated effort to defend the LGBTQ community under the law.”
Among Democrats, dissatisfaction with Garland has been simmering for weeks as he’s charted a path at odds from what they want to see from a Democratic-run DOJ. Last week, several lawmakers—such as Jayapal and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—indicated to The Daily Beast their disappointment with the defense of Trump and some of his policies.
The June 21 letter, among the highest-profile signs of dissent shown yet by Democrats to a member of Biden’s Cabinet, comes at a fraught time for the department. In recent weeks, a string of revelations about conduct at Trump’s DOJ—like the seizing of records belonging to Democratic lawmakers, their staffs, and families—has complicated Biden and Garland’s clear intention to turn the page from the prior administration by signaling independence and an aversion to anything political.
When Biden nominated Garland as attorney general, he said, “You don’t work for me. Your loyalty isn’t to me. It is to the law.” Plenty of Democrats still feel that Garland, who was sworn into office in March, deserves more time to work through the department’s issues.
But other Democrats increasingly feel that Biden can’t restore trust in the department unless his administration reckons with the last four years. Democrats in both the House and Senate have called for a full investigation for the subpoenas of lawmakers’ and reporters’ records, for example, and are expecting full cooperation from Garland.
“While we look forward to working with you to set forth policies that move the United States forward during this critical time,” the Democrats wrote to Garland, “we strongly encourage DOJ to reestablish its commitment to bringing about accountability for the transgressions of the previous administration and upholding fairness, transparency, and the separation of powers.”