On First Day, Garland Vows to Restore Justice Dept. Independence
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland promised on Thursday to protect the credibility of the Justice Department and Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties, delivering a short speech via video to the department’s roughly 115,000 employees about an hour after he was sworn in.
“I am honored to work with you once again,” Mr. Garland said, speaking from the department’s Great Hall. “Together, we will show the American people that the Department of Justice pursues equal justice and adheres to the rule of law.”
Mr. Garland’s speech was his first official act as attorney general. He used the moment to assure the rank and file that the Justice Department would no longer face pressure to attack the president’s enemies and protect his allies — a callback to the unyielding push by President Donald J. Trump that diminished public confidence in the institution and led some career lawyers to resign.
“The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the norms that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee,” Mr. Garland said.
“Those norms require that like cases be treated alike,” he said. The only Justice Department official he mentioned was Edward H. Levi, the attorney general who instituted reforms after Watergate to overhaul a department that had been politicized during the Nixon administration.
Mr. Garland was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday in a bipartisan vote, with 20 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in supporting his nomination.
He and his wife, Lynn, arrived at the Justice Department in a black S.U.V. at 9:03 a.m. They were greeted with applause and cheers in the courtyard of the building by several dozen masked department officials, including Monty Wilkinson, who has served as the acting attorney general since January.
Mr. Garland was sworn in 15 minutes later as the nation’s 86th attorney general in a private ceremony. Shortly after 10 a.m., he went to the Great Hall, a space where hundreds can gather but on Thursday held about 30 seats, spaced six feet apart. As he spoke, his wife, brother-in-law and nieces sat in the front row.
“When I walked in the door of Main Justice this morning, it really did feel like I was coming home,” Mr. Garland told employees. He called their work as public servants “a calling.”
Mr. Garland most recently served as a federal appeals judge for the District of Columbia Circuit. He submitted a letter of resignation to the court on Wednesday, pending his swearing-in as attorney general.
But he is best known for Republicans’ refusal to consider his nomination in 2016 to serve on the Supreme Court, a political power play that ultimately allowed Mr. Trump to fill the seat.
Mr. Garland is also a longtime veteran of the Justice Department, having worked as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington during the George H.W. Bush administration and as a department official during the Clinton administration.
During that time, Mr. Garland led the investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, then the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Mr. Garland vowed during his confirmation hearing, weeks after the riot at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, to use the full force of the department to combat domestic extremism.
Mr. Garland spent the bulk of Thursday in private briefings with top department officials, including with Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director; John P. Carlin, the acting deputy attorney general; John C. Demers, the head of the national security division; and Michael R. Sherwin, the federal prosecutor overseeing the department’s sprawling investigation into the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In an afternoon visit to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, Mr. Garland thanked several officials in person for their work on the investigation, including Channing D. Phillips, the acting U.S. attorney; his deputy, Ken Kohl; and the prosecutors leading the effort, including J.P. Cooney, Michelle Zamarin, Gregg Maisel and John Crabb.
In a virtual meeting with all the office’s employees, Mr. Garland complimented their efforts to mitigate the threat in the weeks after the Capitol attack and reiterated the importance of the investigation, according to an attendee.
Mr. Garland was ceremonially sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris at the Main Justice Building later in the day.
The ceremony was a return to recent tradition. While former attorneys general William P. Barr and Jeff Sessions were sworn in at the White House during the Trump administration, their predecessors — including Eric H. Holder Jr., Loretta E. Lynch, Michael B. Mukasey and Alberto R. Gonzales — were sworn in at the Justice Department.
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