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In House panel hearing, AG Garland insists he and the DOJ are independent

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland was on Capitol Hill yesterday. His appearance before the House Judiciary Committee came as Republicans on the panel have stepped up their attacks on Garland and the Justice Department, and that includes his handling of the high-profile investigation into President Biden's son, Hunter.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following this. Ryan, this was House Republicans' first chance to question him since the federal indictments against Donald Trump and Hunter Biden this summer. So what'd they press him on?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, first off, you're right. House Republicans have been very sharp critics of Garland, particularly Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. And so they used yesterday's hearing to level allegations of political bias against both Garland and the department. And they focused on the department's investigation, as you said, into President Biden's son, Hunter. Now, Republican criticism of the Hunter Biden investigation stems in part from testimony from two IRS agents who've accused the department of, in essence, slow-rolling this investigation. And even the fact that Hunter Biden was indicted last week on three federal felony gun charges didn't really temper Republican criticisms of the probe.

MARTÍNEZ: And how did Garland respond?

LUCAS: Well, he rejected their claim of a two-tiered system of justice - one for Democrats, one for Republicans. This has been a frequent refrain from many Republicans who say that DOJ has aggressively prosecuted Trump and January 6 rioters but gone easy on Hunter Biden. And Garland told the committee that, look; that's just not true. He also stressed that neither he nor the department is beholden to anyone. He said that they act independently.

(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: Now, Garland's delivered that same message in various forms since he took over at the Justice Department, but clearly he felt it necessary to repeat it several times again yesterday.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. The Republicans in this hearing really zeroed in on the Hunter Biden investigation. So how did Garland defend the department's handling of the case?

LUCAS: Well, he reminded them that the man leading the investigation - the U.S. attorney for Delaware, David Weiss - was, in fact, a Trump appointee. Garland kept Weiss on after the change of administration specifically to lead the Hunter Biden investigation. And many Republicans at the time applauded that decision. So Weiss has led this investigation for more than four years. He's been in charge of it. He remains so. Garland even recently appointed him special counsel. And yesterday in his testimony, Garland repeated several times, almost verbatim, that he promised when he became attorney general that he wouldn't interfere in Weiss' investigation in any way, and he said he had not done so.

MARTÍNEZ: Did any of what he had to say satisfy Republicans?

LUCAS: Not really, no. And that's not really a surprise, particularly given the political backdrop to all of this. Remember; some of Trump's top allies on Capitol Hill serve on the House Judiciary Committee. That includes the committee's chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio. And Trump, of course, is facing two federal criminal indictments, even as he is the front-runner to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election, which, of course, is just around the corner. And House Republicans have just opened, of course, an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden. And that looks like an inquiry that is certainly going to spend a lot of time focusing and talking about Hunter Biden and, of course, his legal troubles.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

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.