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Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies to Congress on Hunter Biden charges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland was on Capitol Hill today to testify before the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee. The hearing was Garland's first before Congress since Justice Department prosecutors brought federal charges against former President Trump and against President Biden's son, Hunter. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been watching and joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK, so normally this would be a routine hearing to talk about the department, its work. But, I mean, there's nothing routine about this moment for the Justice Department considering the indictments against Trump and Hunter Biden, right?

LUCAS: That's right. This really is an unprecedented situation for the Justice Department, with the two federal indictments that you mentioned, the two against Trump, the recent indictment against Hunter Biden and, of course, the 2024 presidential campaign looming on the horizon here. Garland is, of course, cognizant of all of that and how politically charged the atmosphere around those investigations is. And so he tried at the beginning of this hearing today to stake out his independence, as well as the department's independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: I am not the president's lawyer. I will add, I am not Congress' prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people.

LUCAS: He added that the department doesn't take orders from anyone on who or what to criminally investigate, and that's a message that Garland has repeated over the past two years. But he sounded, to me at least, more forceful in his statement today, in this moment in time.

CHANG: Interesting. And how did Republicans respond to that?

LUCAS: Well, look, they've been accusing Garland of weaponizing the Justice Department, of going after Trump and January 6 rioters and going easy on Hunter Biden. And those are allegations that we heard from them again today. A big focus for Republicans was on the department's handling of the Hunter Biden investigation. That's an investigation that has been led since 2019 by the U.S. attorney for Delaware, a man by the name of David Weiss. Weiss was originally appointed during the Trump administration. And Garland kept him on as U.S attorney specifically to continue to lead the Hunter probe, even after the Biden administration came into office.

Now, Republican criticism of the investigation is driven, at least in part, by testimony from two IRS agents who've accused the department, in essence, of kind of slow rolling the probe. Now, Garland today repeated again and again in the face of Republican questions that he has not interfered in Weiss' investigation and that Weiss has had the authority to pursue this case as he sees fit.

CHANG: And then Garland recently appointed Weiss as special counsel, right?

LUCAS: That's right. That happened last month. And as part of that, Weiss will eventually write a report on the investigation and likely testify before Congress. And while the investigation has been running, as I said, since 2019, Hunter Biden was indicted last week on three federal felony gun charges. And he could still face other charges.

CHANG: Right. OK, well, I mean, the 2024 election is just around the corner. And the Republican frontrunner, former President Trump, is facing two federal indictments. How big a role do you think that larger political reality played in today's questioning of Garland?

LUCAS: So Garland has tried, since he took over as attorney general, to extricate the department from politics, to wall it off from outside influence. And a lot of legal observers think he's done a good job of reestablishing norms on that front. But it is impossible to shield the Justice Department from the political winds of Washington, from the political winds of Capitol Hill.

There is an election next year. The Republican frontrunner, former President Trump, is facing, as you said, two federal indictments. And of course, House Republicans have just launched an impeachment inquiry of President Biden. And Hunter's personal and legal troubles, including the special counsel's investigation, are central to that. So hearings like today aren't so much about oversight as they are an opportunity for lawmakers to try to advance their own political narratives.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you so much, Ryan

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.