The Washington Post

FBI search puts Garland into the fray

Political outcry is exactly what Justice Dept. head has sought to avoid

- BY PERRY STEIN

When President Biden tapped Merrick Garland to lead the Justice Department last year, he selected a cautious appeals court judge known as a political moderate who could build consensus.

Garland, a former federal prosecutor, would attempt to rebuild trust in the sprawling and powerful law enforcemen­t agency after the tumultuous Trump presidency, his supporters said. He would try to convince the public and lawmakers that he was an apolitical attorney general, even as he tackled some of the nation’s most contentiou­s political issues.

But the FBI’S highly unusual court-approved search Monday of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-lago Club put Garland square in the middle of a huge political firestorm. The search, part of a long-running probe into the possible mishandlin­g of presidenti­al documents, drew praise from Democrats who have been hoping the Justice Department would seriously investigat­e Trump and the ire of conservati­ves who decried the search as an abuse of power.

Trump called the courtautho­rized search “prosecutor­ial misconduct” and the “weaponizat­ion of the Justice System.” Some of his supporters say the FBI’S action could galvanize Trump’s base if he runs for president in 2024.

Republican allies on Capitol Hill denounced Garland and pledged to turn the tables and investigat­e the Justice Department. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO.) said the attorney general should resign or be impeached.

The partisan outcry was the opposite of what Garland has sought in his 17 months on the job, during which he has launched multiple high-profile civil rights investigat­ions and efforts to fight gun traffickin­g and hate crimes, while also overseeing the sprawling investigat­ion of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the unpreceden­ted efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidenti­al election.

Time and again, Garland has refused to discuss that probe or any other investigat­ion in progress, whether or not it involves the former president. He has repeatedly pledged to follow the facts where they lead, and to hold anyone who breaks the law accountabl­e, regardless of who that person may be.

At news conference­s, he dodges reporters’ queries about Trump, which come up inevitably. Two of the four reporters permitted to ask questions at a news conference last week on charges filed against police officers in connection with the killing of Breonna Taylor chose to ask about investigat­ions into Trump. Both times, Garland declined to answer.

For months, Trump’s critics — especially, but not limited to, the left — pummeled Garland for not moving quickly to investigat­e Trump on multiple fronts. In recent weeks and months, without fanfare, the Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s office in Washington began obtaining communicat­ions from people in Trump’s inner circle and subpoenain­g witnesses to appear before a grand jury, clearly indicating that Trump’s actions and conversati­ons had become part of the scope of the Jan. 6-related probe.

“You are undoubtedl­y going to have people saying that this is the ultimate political act,” Donald B. Ayer, a deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said of the raid. “But that’s just nonsense. . . . He has a job to do.”

The Justice Department would not comment on whether Garland signed off on the FBI raid, and Garland has not discussed it. He made just one public comment on Monday, about the sentencing of three men convicted on federal charges in connection with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man killed while jogging in his Georgia neighborho­od.

“The Justice Department’s prosecutio­n of this case and the court’s sentences today make clear that hate crimes have no place in our country,” Garland said in a statement. “Protecting civil rights and combatting white supremacis­t violence was a founding purpose of the Justice Department, and one that we will continue to pursue with the urgency it demands.”

Kristy Parker, a former federal prosecutor and counsel at the advocacy group Protect Democracy, said that while it’s inevitable the reaction to the search would be politicize­d, Garland’s silence before and after the search of Trump’s property was critical to him building trust in the process. She said it showed the attorney general wasn’t trying to appeal to any group during the investigat­ion and has been letting the probe run its course.

“It is important to look at the manner of what is being done, and not just the substance of what is being done,” Parker said. “And it’s just as important to depolitici­zing the department to ensure that no one is above the law as it is to try to avoid prosecutin­g the president or someone from the opposite political party.”

But some lawyers questioned why the Justice Department and FBI would execute such a highprofil­e search on a former president’s residence over missing documents, even if some of them are classified (sitting presidents have broad powers to declassify documents, further complicati­ng the situation).

Stanley Brand, a former House counsel who represents some of the Jan. 6 defendants and witnesses, said that search warrants don’t always yield any blockbuste­r or useful informatio­n. He called the FBI search of Trump’s property a huge escalation in the investigat­ion of documents improperly taken to Mar-a-lago. If investigat­ors don’t recoup materials that showed that there were serious national consequenc­es for the materials he potentiall­y kept, Brand said, it could tarnish the Justice Department’s reputation.

“If they are trying to rebound from the perception that their decision-making was skewed from the Trump era, this is not going to help that,” Brand said. “Part of it depends on what happens hereafter.”

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