Merrick Garland pressed by Republican senators in tense hearing

US attorney general repeatedly challenged to rescind memo directing FBI to help address violence against local school officials

US Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. EPA
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Republican senators unloaded a torrent of criticism against US Attorney General Merrick Garland during a hearing on matters including asking the FBI to help address violent threats against local school officials to how the Justice Department is responding to terrorism dangers and border security.

During a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republicans sought to trip Mr Garland up, often stopping him from providing full answers to their questions as he struggled to respond in the lawyerly manner honed during his career as a prosecutor and judge.

“Right now, it looks like the Department of Justice is running you,” said the top Republican on the panel, Chuck Grassley.

“The department has moved as far left as it could go. You politicised the department in ways it shouldn’t be.”

The hearing was one of the tensest public episodes for Mr Garland, 68, since he was confirmed in March.

Mr Grassley and John Cornyn of Texas criticised Mr Garland for issuing a memo this month directing the FBI to help address threats of violence against local school officials.

The threats are coming from some parents and others who are against masking requirements during the pandemic and oppose teaching that focuses on race in American culture and history.

‘Threats of violence’

Challenged repeatedly to rescind the memo, Mr Garland gave no indication he would do so.

Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas said Garland should “resign in disgrace".

“The only thing the Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence,” Mr Garland said, citing reports that members of some school boards say they have received “threats to kill them".

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Mr Cornyn demanded to know if Mr Garland had considered the chilling effect the memo might have on parents exercising their constitutional rights.

“I don’t believe it’s reasonable to read this memo as chilling anyone’s rights,” Mr Garland said.

Mr Cornyn shot back: “Let the record reflect the attorney general refused to answer the question.”

Terrorist threats

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioned Mr Garland on the potential for terrorist groups to plot attacks in the US from inside Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops.

“I don’t know whether the withdrawal will increase the risk from Al Qaeda or not,” Mr Garland said.

It was a surprising contention as US military and intelligence officials have said the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan bolsters terrorist groups that could carry out attacks in the US within a year.

Mr Garland did not back down even as Mr Graham frequently cut him off, saying the Justice Department is failing to address the issue urgently.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Mr Garland responded. He said the department has strengthened the work being done by joint terrorism task forces across the country.

Mr Graham also asked Mr Garland what he would tell foreigners in a caravan that appears to be headed for the Texas border with Mexico.

“I would tell them not to come,” Mr Garland said at first, but then said it would depend on why they are coming.

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Updated: October 27, 2021, 8:46 PM