WASHINGTON - House Republicans clashed with Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday, accusing him and the Justice Department of the "weaponization" of the department's work in favor of President Joe Biden's son Hunter.
Garland’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee was the first in two years and came at an unprecedented moment in the department’s history: He’s overseeing two cases against Donald Trump, the first former president to face criminal charges, and another against the sitting president's son.
Republicans on the committee — led by Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman — set the tone with accusations that the Justice Department is favoring the Biden family, while targeting his opponent, Trump.
"There’s one investigation protecting President Biden. There’s another one attacking President Trump," Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said in his opening statement. "The Justice Department’s got both sides of the equation covered."
Garland — carefully and deliberately — defended the country’s largest law enforcement agency of more than 115,000 employees at a time when political and physical threats against agents and their families are on the rise.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on September 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. The committee is holding an oversight hearing on the U.S. Department of Justic
"Our job is not to take orders from the president, from Congress, or from anyone else, about who or what to criminally investigate," the attorney general said.
He added, "I am not the president’s lawyer. I will also add that I am not Congress’s prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people."
The central line of questioning in Republicans' arsenal surrounded allegations that the Justice Department interfered in the yearslong case into Hunter Biden and that the prosecutor in charge of that case did not have the full authority he needed to bring the necessary charges to the younger Biden.
Early in the hearing, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana asked Garland whether he had talked with anyone at FBI headquarters about the Hunter Biden investigation. The attorney general’s response began with a long pause before he said: "I don’t recollect the answer to that question," later adding "I don’t believe that I did."
Garland then said repeatedly that he purposely kept the details of the investigation at arms length, to keep a promise not to interfere.
His testimony also comes just over a week after Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., launched an impeachment inquiry into his boss, President Biden, with a special focus on the Justice Department’s handling of Hunter Biden’s yearslong case.
The White House has dismissed the impeachment inquiry as baseless and worked to focus the conversation on policy instead. Hunter Biden’s legal team, on the other hand, has gone on the offensive against GOP critics, most recently filing suit against the Internal Revenue Service after two of its agents raised whistleblower claims to Congress about the handling of the investigation.
Republicans contend that the Justice Department — both under Trump and now Biden — has failed to fully probe the allegations against the younger Biden, ranging from his work on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma to his tax filings in California and Washington D.C.
An investigation into Hunter Biden had been run by the U.S. Attorney for Delaware, Trump appointee David Weiss, who Garland kept on to finish the probe and insulate it from claims of political interference. Garland granted Weiss special counsel status last month, giving him broad authority to investigate and report his findings.
Asked by Republican Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina whether he had tried to figure out if Weiss was facing any hurdles in bringing charges against the president’s son, Garland said he had purposely kept his distance to keep a promise not to interfere.
"The way to not interfere was to not investigate an investigation," Garland said.
Weiss, since 2018, has overseen the day-to-day running of the probe and another special counsel, Jack Smith, is in charge of the Trump investigation, though Garland retains final say on both as attorney general.
Garland said no one at the White House had given him or other senior officials at the Justice Department direction about the handling of the Hunter Biden investigation. Asked whether he had spoken with Weiss, Garland said he had followed his pledge not to interfere in the investigation but declined to say whether or how often he had spoken with the newly named special counsel, citing the ongoing investigation.
Democrats, for their part, sought to focus on other criminal-justice issues, including domestic terrorism, hate crimes and gun violence. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the committee, decried what he called Republicans’ focus on "long discredited conspiracy theories" about Hunter Biden and a laptop said to have belonged to him.
"That is their goal. They want to divide this country and make our government appear like it’s broken," Nadler said.
Democrats labored to undermine what they see as Republican misinformation in their ongoing defense of Trump, who is now the Republican front-runner to challenge Biden in next year’s election. They say Republicans are trying to detract attention from the indicted former president’s legal challenges and turn a negative spotlight on Biden.
Last week, Weiss used that new authority to indict Hunter Biden on federal firearms charges, putting the case on track toward a possible trial as the 2024 election looms.
Jordan, along with the Republican chairmen of the Oversight and Ways and Means committees launched an investigation into Weiss’ handling of the case, which was first opened in 2018 after two IRS agents claimed in congressional testimony in May that the Justice Department improperly interfered with their work.
Gary Shapley, a veteran IRS agent assigned to the case, testified to Congress that Weiss said in October 2022 that he was not the "deciding person whether charges are filed" against Hunter Biden. That testimony has been disputed by two FBI agents also in that meeting who told lawmakers that they have no recollection of Weiss saying that.