Hill Democrats are intensifying pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to clean house at the Justice Department following revelations that Donald Trump’s DOJ secretly seized communication records belonging to Democratic lawmakers, congressional staffers and journalists.
Garland, who served as a federal judge for two decades, has worked to reassure Democrats that he’s taking the issue seriously and pledged to support an independent inspector general’s investigation into the matter. But Democrats are quickly growing impatient and already taking matters into their own hands — opening a formal probe this week to determine who was responsible and hold them accountable.
“We cannot wait for the inspector general to share even his preliminary findings with DOJ, some months or years from now, before Congress contemplates a response,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose panel is spearheading the Hill’s investigation.
Nadler’s panel will investigate the Trump Justice Department’s efforts to secretly obtain communications records belonging to two top critics of the former president — House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — in addition to their aides and family members. At the time the records were obtained, the Intelligence panel was investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. The two lawmakers were ensnared as part of broader probes into illegal leaks of classified information.
Alleged political pressure on the Justice Department didn’t stop there. Emails released Tuesday showed then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had pushed senior DOJ officials to investigate Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. While the damaging reports from the Trump era pile up, however, Garland’s DOJ has maintained the Trump administration’s positions on high-profile lawsuits involving the former president and Garland’s predecessor, William Barr.
That’s heightening the urgency of Garland’s task for many top Democrats.
“I spoke with [Garland] yesterday and urged that we do a broader review than just the issues affecting the committee and the press, but the entire degree to which the department leadership was politicized by his predecessor,” Schiff said in a brief interview on Tuesday. “And I’m confident that he will.”
Part of the problem, Democrats say, might be that the attorney general has only been in office for three months.
“There are probably more things that have been going on within the Justice Department than have come to light, even for [Garland],” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a Judiciary Committee member. “Part of the issue is that Merrick Garland needs to get a sense of what is actually happening. There’s a lot of Trump people there doing various things.”
That includes John Demers, the Trump-appointed chief of the Justice Department’s national security division, which would have had a significant role in the effort to obtain the records in question. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already called for public testimony from Demers, who’s set to leave the department by the end of the month.
Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged the attorney general has a lot on his plate, saying he hasn’t “kept score” of the myriad tasks Garland has to address emanating from the previous administration.
On Monday, Durbin and the rest of the committee’s Democratic members asked Garland for an “immediate” briefing and called on the Justice Department to answer detailed questions about the efforts to obtain Schiff’s and Swalwell’s records, including the “factual and legal” basis. They also demanded copies of the subpoenas and all internal DOJ communications related to the decision to pursue the matter.
“I want to give [Garland] the benefit of the doubt. He comes out of the judiciary and may not have all that great situational awareness about the malevolent political forces around him,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who was among the most vocal critics of the Trump-era Justice Department. “He’s also still filling out his team. So I’m willing to be patient for a bit.”
“But if it doesn’t get better, as time moves on, I’m going to get pretty impatient,” Whitehouse added.
That impatience is what prompted the House Judiciary Committee to take swift action on Monday, with lawmakers viewing the inspector general probe alone as inadequate.
“I think a parallel congressional investigation will also yield information,” Swalwell, a Judiciary Committee member, said in a brief interview. “But the most important thing is to signal to the country that no Republican or Democrat will be able to do this again.”
Garland, for his part, has been taking steps to mollify Democrats and other stakeholders. In a series of phone calls with top lawmakers, Garland has assured them that he will examine what Democrats see as the “politicization” of the Justice Department under Trump. On Monday, Garland met with executives from three news organizations — CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post — whose reporters’ records were seized as part of leak investigations.
“I have a lot of confidence in Merrick Garland, and there’s a lot for him to do — he just can’t do it overnight,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former Judiciary Committee chair who still sits on the panel.
“It’s not a one-step or one day-deal, but I think he is moving forward and bringing a new team into the DOJ and demanding accountability,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another member of the committee.
While the House takes matters into its own hands, the Senate is hamstrung; its Judiciary panel has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and Democrats need a majority — including at least one Republican — to issue a subpoena. No GOP member of the panel has indicated a willingness to join the investigative effort, which would potentially require subpoenas to prompt testimony from Barr and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Republicans have said a congressional investigation is unnecessary because the Justice Department’s inspector general has already launched its own review, arguing that a lawmaker-led inquiry would turn into a political circus. In addition, GOP lawmakers have noted the long-running history of questions about the appropriateness of DOJ actions under administrations of both parties.
Instead, those Republicans are putting their trust in Garland — for now.
“I’d like Attorney General Garland to have the first opportunity to give us the answers before we start undercutting what [the Justice Department] should be looking into,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a Judiciary Committee member who voted to confirm Garland to his post.
Tillis added that “we have an oversight role, but I don’t think we should short-circuit the process.”
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the committee, said that “in a very general way, I have great confidence in Garland.” Grassley added that he did not see the need for Garland to brief the committee yet, given the ongoing investigation from the Justice Department inspector general, but that he doesn’t fault Democrats for making their document request.
“I can’t condemn Democrats for wanting documents when I’m accusing the administration of not giving me documents,” Grassley said.