President-elect Joe Biden introduced his pick for the nation's top law enforcement official on Thursday, turning to experienced judge Merrick Garland to help de-politicize the Justice Department and restore the rule of law after what the incoming president described as four years of lawlessness under President Donald Trump.
Biden also described the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Wednesday as “domestic terrorists” and assailed the Republican president for inciting the siege.
“The past four years we’ve had a president who’s made his contempt for our democracy, our Constitution, the rule of law, clear in everything he has done,” Biden said, vowing a dramatic shift in his administration. “More than anything, we need to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the Department of Justice that’s been so badly damaged."
If confirmed by the Senate, which is likely, Garland would take over as the U.S. attorney general at a critical moment for the country and the agency. He would inherit urgent challenges related to policing and civil rights, an ongoing criminal tax investigation into Biden’s son Hunter and Democratic calls to pursue criminal inquiries into Trump after he leaves office.
Beyond those issues, Garland would be tasked with repairing the American people's broader distrust in the Justice Department, fomented during a tumultuous four years under Trump's leadership. The Republican president regularly meddled in the department, most notably firing FBI Director James Comey while his agency was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Biden vowed that Garland's loyalty would rest not with the president, but with the law and Constitution.
“You don't work for me,” Biden charged as he introduced Garland.
Facing the public for the first time at Biden's side, Garland promised to restore an equal commitment to law and order and integrity to the nation's top law enforcement agency, pointing to Wednesday's assault on the Capitol as a consequence of failing to do so.
“As everyone who watched yesterday's events in Washington now understands, if they did not understand before, the rule of law is not just some lawyers' turn of phrase, it is the very foundation of our democracy,” Garland said.
Garland may be a familiar name to political observers.
Senate Republicans spurned him four years ago, refusing even to hold hearings when President Barack Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court. His confirmation prospects as attorney general were all but ensured when Democrats scored control of the Senate majority by winning both Georgia Senate seats.
Biden also introduced three others for senior Justice Department leadership posts on Thursday, including Obama administration homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and former Justice Department civil rights chief Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general, the No. 3 official. He also named an assistant attorney general for civil rights, Kristen Clarke, now the president of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group.
Garland was selected over other finalists including former Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
The department is expected to change course dramatically under new leadership, including through a different approach to civil rights issues and national policing policies following the racial reckoning sparked by continued deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
Black and Latino advocates wanted a Black attorney general or someone with a background in civil rights causes and criminal justice reform. Groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had championed Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, but the extent of support from minority groups for the attorney general job was not immediately clear.
Though Garland is white, the selection of Gupta and Clarke, two women with significant experience in civil rights, appeared designed to blunt any concerns and served as a signal that progressive causes would be prioritized in the new administration. Gupta is the daughter of immigrants from India and Clarke's parents are from Jamaica.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addressed racial justice disparities head on during Thursday's event, connecting them to this week's storming of the Capitol.
She said that fixing the conditions that led to the Washington violence would require the new administration to understand "how to reform, how to transform, a justice system that does not work equally for all — a justice system that is experienced differently depending on whether you're white or Black.”
“We witnessed two systems of justice when we saw one that let extremists storm the United States Capitol, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protesters last summer," Harris added. “We know we should be better.”
Having worked for the Justice Department decades ago, Garland would return to an agency radically different from the one he left. A proliferation of aggressive cyber and counterintelligence threats from foreign adversaries have made countries like China, Russia and North Korea top priorities for federal law enforcement.
Monaco in particular brings to the department significant national security experience, including in cybersecurity — an especially urgent issue as the U.S. government confronts a devastating hack of federal agencies that officials have linked to Russia.
Some of the issues from Garland’s first stint at the department persist.
The FBI has confronted a surge in violence from antigovernment and racially motivated extremists. Garland, as a senior Justice Department official, helped manage the federal government’s response to the 1995 bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was later executed.
Garland has called the work the “most important thing I have done” and was known for keeping a framed photo of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in his courthouse office in Washington.
Garland has been on the federal appeals court in Washington since 1997. Before that, he had worked in private practice, as well as a federal prosecutor, a senior official in the Justice Department’s criminal division and as the principal associate deputy attorney general.
AP writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed.