Return to Transcripts main page
CNN News Central
Attorney General Garland Testifies Before GOP-Led House Judiciary Committee. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired September 20, 2023 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are standing by for fireworks, quite frankly, in Capitol Hill. What's new, right? But, no, a critical hearing. It's officially billed as a standard oversight hearing, but it has turned into so much more than that, even before they all entered the room.
Attorney General Merrick Garland getting ready to face a House Judiciary Committee stacked with some of his harshest critics in Congress, some even openly calling for Garland to be impeached.
His testimony today is the first in the wake of four indictments against former President Trump and so much more.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's also the first time Garland will testify since Hunter Biden, the first time since the plea deal imploded. Today's hearing could become, as Kate said, contentious because some of the people in that room have called for Garland to be impeached.
SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: We've gotten an early preview of what we will hear from the attorney general. It's a forceful rebuke of the political bias accusations from those very Republicans that John and Kate were speaking of. Excerpts of Garland's prepared remarks show he plans to make at least two things very clear. One of them, quote, I am not the president's lawyer and I'm not Congress' prosecutor either.
CNN's Melanie Zanona and Evan Perez are following all of the latest as we wait for this hearing to begin. We've been watching it. A lot of members of Congress are there, Garland, not there yet.
Melanie, let's start with you. Give us a sense of what the temperature is going to be at the hearing expected to be hot.
MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, I think it's safe to say temperatures will be boiling. This is going to be a crucial moment for Garland and the DOJ but it's also going to be a crucial moment for Republicans who are under pressure to convince the public and even some of their own members that they need to convince them that this impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is warranted.
You see, Garland has now just entered the hearing room. He is sitting down getting ready for this crucial meeting. Hunter Biden and the criminal case surrounding him is expected to be a crucial part of that impeachment inquiry.
So, Republicans are really preparing for battle here. They are going to ask a lot of questions about the Hunter Biden criminal case. And they want to have a lot of questions about testimony from some IRS whistleblowers who have claimed that the U.S. attorney in the case said he did not have ultimate charging authority in that case. They claim that the case was mishandled and the case was politicized, something Garland has denied, but no doubt will be a huge focus of their line of questioning today.
But they're also going to ask questions about the appointment of David Weiss as special counsel, the plea deal with the DOJ and Hunter Biden that did fall apart, as you mentioned, and also those criminal indictments into Donald Trump. So, a lot of questions, a lot of fireworks and the stakes couldn't be higher.
BERMAN: As we wait for this to get underway, you're looking at the preliminaries right now. Actually, I think we're beyond the preliminaries.
Let's listen to the chairman, Jim Jordan.
REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): Everyone knows the fix is in. Four and a half years, four and a half years, the Department of Justice has been investigating Mr. Biden, an investigation run by David Weiss, an investigation that limited the number of witnesses agents could interview, an investigation that prohibited agents from referring to the president as the, quote, big guy in any of the interviews they did get to do, an investigation that curtailed attempts to interview Mr. Biden by giving the transits team a secret of heads-up, an investigation that notified Mr. Biden's defense counsel about a pending search warrant, an investigation run by Mr. Weiss, run by Mr. Weiss, where they told the Congress three different stories in 33 days.
They told this committee on June 7th, David Weiss said I have ultimate authority to determine when, where and whether to bring charges. 23 days later, June 30th, he told this committee, actually, I can only bring charges in my U.S. attorney's district, the district of Delaware. And then to further confuse matters, on July 10th, he told Senator Graham, I have not sought special counsel status, rather I've had discussions with the Department of Justice, an investigation run by Mr. Weiss that negotiated a plea deal that the federal district court declined to accept, a plea deal so ridiculous, the judge asked this question, quote, is there any precedence for agreeing not to prosecute crimes that have nothing to do with the charges being diverted? The response from the DOJ lawyer, I'm not aware of any, Your Honor.
A plea deal so ridiculous that the judge also asked, have you ever seen a diversion agreement, where the agreement not to prosecute was so broad that it encompasses crimes in a different case? The response from the DOJ lawyer, no, Your Honor, we haven't.
An investigation run by Mr. Weiss that not only had a sweetheart deal rejected, but according to The New York Times, there was an even sweeter deal, an earlier deal, a deal in which Mr. Biden would not have to plead guilty to anything. Four and a half years and all that, and now we get a special counsel. Now we get a special counsel, and who does the attorney general pick? David Weiss, the guy who let all that happen.
He could have selected anyone, he could have picked anyone inside government, outside government. He could have picked former attorney generals, former special counsels, but he picks the one guy, the one guy he knows will protect Joe Biden. He picks David Weiss.
And here's what the A.G. said in his August 11th announcement of David Weiss as a special counsel, quote, I am confident that Mr. Weiss will carry out his responsibility in an even-handed and urgent manner, urgent manner every witness we've talked to. The two FBI whistleblowers that came forward, Mr. Shapley, Mr. Ziegler, the two FBI agents on the case, Mr. Sobocinski and Ms. Holly, they've all said this thing was anything but urgent. The FBI said this was -- they were frustrated at the pace. Ms. Holly said she was frustrated at the pace. And, of course, the IRS agents, they said the investigation was slow- walked.
And evenhanded, they limited the number of witnesses that could be interviewed. They tipped off the defense counsel about a subpoena. The judge says the plea deal was a joke and all that's just half the story. There's one investigation protecting President Biden. There's another one attacking President Trump. Justice Department's got both sides of the equation covered.
Look at the classified documents case. Spring and early summer of last year, the Department of Justice asked President Trump to turn over boxes of documents. He does just that. In the process, President Trump finds 38 additional documents. He tells the Department of Justice, the very next day the FBI comes to his home and he turns them over. Then the Department of Justice asked the president to put any boxes he brought from the White House to his home in a storage room and secure it by locking it. He does that as well.
Everything they ask him to do, he did. And then what's the Justice Department do? August 8th, last year, they raid President Trump's home. And according to the FBI agent, Stephen D'antuono, the assistant director in charge of the Washington field office, the search was a complete departure from standard protocol.
When we interviewed Mr. D,antuono, he said, first, the Miami field office didn't do the search. Instead, they sent folks from D.C. He said there was no U.S. attorney assigned to the case. Instead, it was run by D.C., in particular, Jay Bratt, who's now on the special counsel team.
He said the FBI didn't get President Trump's counsel's approval before they did the search. And then Mr. D'antuono told us he had recommended that when the FBI got to Mr. Trump's home, President Trump's home, they contact his counsel, wait for him to get there and do the search together. Of course, the DOJ said no.
And then who does the attorney general name as special counsel in that case? Jack Smith, the guy who, a few years ago, was looking for ways to prosecute Americans, targeted by Lois Lerner and the IRS, looking to prosecute the very victims of the weaponized government, the weaponized IRS.
Jack Smith, the guy who prosecuted Governor McDonnell, only to have the Supreme Court overturned that prosecution in a unanimous decision, that's the guy, that's the guy that the attorney general of the United States selects as special counsel.
And you wonder why four out of five Americans believe there are now two standards of justice in our great country.
Mr. Garland, I anticipate a number of questions on these two investigations. Later in the hearing, I expect from Republicans you will also get questions about the many other concerns the American people have with the department, the school board's memorandum, treating Catholics, a memo that said pro-life Catholics are extremists, the Fifth Circuit decision, great decision on the Department of Justice and other agencies censoring American speech and, of course, defies a law that's up for reauthorization this year and how that process has been abused and infringed on the rights, privacy rights of the American people.
Americans believe that today in our country there is unequal application of the law. They believe that because there is. Republicans are committed to making that change.
With that, I would yield to the gentleman from New York, the ranking member for an opening statement.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, I'd like to make two comments. One, just about every assertion you made in your opening statement has been completely refuted by witnesses who have testified before this committee.
Two, far from being favored, many commentators have noted that people accused of simple gun possession while under the influence of a drug, when that gun was not used in the commission of a crime, are rarely, if ever, prosecuted the way Hunter Biden is being prosecuted.
Mr. Chairman, one of this committee's most important duties is conducting oversight of the Department of Justice. We are called upon to ensure that the DOJ uses the enormous amount of power it has granted in a fair, just manner that respects the civil and human rights of all Americans.
The attorney general of the United States oversees issues that affect the lives of each and every American. Violent crime, drug trafficking, tax on our civil rights, threats to our national security, and environmental crimes all fall under his purview. That is why we regularly request that he or she appear before this committee to speak about the work the department is doing for the welfare of the country. This is how we ensure that the department stays accountable to the American people.
But if we're up to the Republicans, Americans would hear nothing about any of these substantive issues today. They would hear nothing about the rise in domestic terrorism and what the Justice Department is doing about it. They would hear nothing about what the department is doing to stop hate crimes and prevent gun violence. They would hear nothing about how the department is disrupting efforts by Russia, China, and others to interfere in our elections.
Extreme MAGA Republicans have poisoned our vital oversight work. They've ignored our legitimate oversight responsibilities and used their power to stage one political stunt after another. They've wasted countless taxpayer dollars on baseless investigations into President Biden and his family, desperate to find evidence for an absurd impeachment and desperate to distract from the mounting legal peril facing Donald Trump.
They have fought tirelessly to stop efforts to fight maligned foreign actors trying to influence and manipulate Americans through social media. They have unconstitutionally interfered in criminal litigation and attempted to bully state and local law enforcement officers.
They have publicized the names of witnesses who did not further their political goals, leading to threats of death and physical violence against those witnesses and their families. They have cost any number of private institutions and companies millions of dollars in legal fees as they struggle to respond to ridiculous and overbroad requests for information and transcribed interviews.
They have issued subpoenas for show without making meaningful attempts to get the information they seek by consent. They have levied low baseless personal attacks on any prosecutor to bring charges against Donald Trump or January 6th rioters.
They have attempted to discredit investigators who were not hard enough on Donald Trump's political opponents. They have supported those involved in the deadly attack on our Capitol on January 6th in an attempt to overthrow a lawful election.
They have justified conduct that we all know to be wildly illegal, like the theft of classified materials and incitement to violence. And through it all, rather than try to unite the country or solve the problems that affect us all, they have sought to exploit our divisions for cynical, personal political gain.
That is their goal, division. They want to divide this country and make our government appear like it's broken, because that is when their broken political party thrives.
So, today, I implore the public to see through the sham.
[10:15:01] I have no doubt that you will hear a deluge of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations. They will quote freely from so-called whistleblowers who have been broadly discredited or contradicted.
They will viciously attack federal law enforcement. They will tell you that all 91 criminal charges against Donald Trump are part of a conspiracy despite overwhelming evidence of each of Donald Trump's crimes. And they will attack special counsel Weiss, who was appointed, let us not forget, by Donald Trump, for not being hard enough on Hunter Biden.
Republicans will continue doing what they've done for years, discrediting anyone who does not serve their political goals at any cost. And the shame of it is that in this hearing room, like on the House floor, where we are barreling towards a government shutdown while my Republican colleagues call each other names, we could be working together to put people over politics and to solve any number of problems affecting the American people.
More than 30,000 Americans have died from gun violence so far this year alone. Guns have become the leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 17, surpassing car accidents. Domestic violent extremism and white nationalism are on the rise. We are seeing active clubs and other white supremacist groups pop up around the country. Anti- Semitism is at an all-time high.
Malign foreign actors, like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, are attempting to influence our elections. Political rhetoric is causing threats against law enforcement officials to skyrocket. Our immigration court system is in desperate need of reform. Our election work has received death threats from conspiracy theory-driven extremists. Fentanyl is filling our streets and poisoning our children at historic rates.
This list goes on and on, and we, the people in this room and are in a position to do something about it. In fact, it is our duty to do something about it, consistent with the oath we took when we were sworn in as members of Congress.
We could work with the Department of Justice and Attorney General Garland to address any number of real substantive problems facing the American people. Instead, House Republicans will use their time today to talk about long-discredited conspiracy theories and Hunter Biden's laptop. They will do it because they care more about Donald Trump than they do about their own constituents.
I hope my colleagues will see reason and at least attempt to work with the attorney general in good faith. Sadly, on the other side of the aisle, reason and good faith seem to be in short supply.
In any event, Mr. Attorney General, I thank you for your testimony and thank you in advance for your patience.
I yield back.
JORDAN: The gentleman yields back without objection. All other opening statements will be included in the record. We will now introduce today's witness.
The Honorable Merrick Garland is the Attorney General of the United States. He was sworn in on March 11, 2021. We welcome our witness, thank him for appearing today. We will begin by swearing you in. Would you please rise and raise your right hand.
Do you swear or affirm under penalty of perjury that the testimony you're about to give is true and correct to the best of your knowledge, information and belief, so help you God?
The record shows that the witness is answered in the affirmative. Thank you. You can be seated.
Please know that your written testimony will enter into the record in its entirety. Accordingly, we ask that you summarize your testimony. You know how this is done. Mr. Garland, you've been here before. We want to again thank you for being here.
You're welcome to give your opening statement.
MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm sorry, is this working? Yes.
JORDAN: You got it.
GARLAND: Thank you. Good morning, Chairman Jordan, Ranking Member Nadler, distinguished members of this committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you on behalf of the more than 115,000 employees, the Department of Justice.
Since the Justice Department was founded, it has been tasked with confronting some of the most challenging issues before the country. Today, we are handling matters of significant public interest that carry great consequences for our democracy.
A lot has been said about the Justice Department, about who we are and what we are doing, about what our job is, and what it is not. And about why we do this work. I want to provide some clarity.
First, who we are. The Justice Department is made up of more than 115,000 men and women who work in every state and communities across the country and around the globe. They are FBI, DEA, ATF agents, and United States Marshals who risk their lives to serve their communities. They are prosecutors and staff who work tirelessly to enforce our laws.
The overwhelming majority are career public servants, meaning that they were not appointed by the president of any party.
Second, I want to provide clarity about what the job of the Justice Department is and about what it is not. Our job is to help keep our country safe. That includes working closely with local police departments and communities across the country to combat violent crime. In fact, today, we are announcing the results of a recent U.S. Marshals operation conducted with state and local law enforcement. That operation targeted violent fugitives and resulted in 4,400 arrests across 20 cities in just three months.
Our work also includes combating the drug cartels that are poisoning Americans. Last Friday, we extradited Ovidio Guzman Lopez, a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico to the United States. He is a son of El Chapo and one of more than a dozen cartel members we have indicted and extradited to the United States.
Our job includes seeking justice for the survivors of child exploitation, human smuggling and sex trafficking. That includes protecting democratic institutions like this one by holding accountable all those criminally responsible for the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
Our job is also to protect civil rights. That includes protecting our freedoms as Americans to worship and think as we please and to peacefully express our opinions, our beliefs and our ideas. It includes protecting the right of every eligible citizen to vote and to have that vote counted. It includes combating discrimination, defending reproductive rights under law and deterring and prosecuting attacks such as hate crimes.
And our job is to uphold the rule of law. That means we apply the same laws to everyone. There is not one set of laws for the powerful and another for the powerless, one for the rich and another for the poor, one for Democrats and another for Republicans, or different rules depending upon one's race, or ethnicity or religion.
Our job is to pursue justice without fear or favor. Our job is not to do what is politically convenient. Our job is not to take orders from the president, from Congress, or from anyone else about who or what to criminally investigate.
As the president himself has said, and I reaffirm today, I am not the president's lawyer. I will add, I am not Congress' prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people. Our job is to follow the facts and the law, and that is what we do.
All of us recognize that with this work comes public scrutiny, criticism and legitimate oversight. These are appropriate and important, given the matters and the gravity of the matters that are before the department. But singling out individual career public servants who are just doing their jobs is dangerous, particularly at a time of increased threats to the safety of public servants and their families.
We will not be intimidated. We will do our jobs free from outside influence and we will not back down from defending our democracy.
Third, I want to explain why we approach our job in this way. The Justice Department was founded in the wake of the civil war and in the midst of reconstruction with the first principal task of bringing to justice white supremacists and others who terrorize black Americans to prevent them from exercising their civil rights.
The Justice Department's job then, and now, is to fulfill the promise that it is at the foundation of our democracy that the law will treat each of us alike.
That promise is also why I am here. My family fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century. My grandmother was one of five children, born in what is now Belarus, made it to the United States, as did two of her siblings. The other two did not. Those two were killed in the Holocaust.
And there, this little doubt that, but for America, the same thing would have happened to my grandmother.
But this country took her in, and under the protection of our laws, she was able to live without fear of persecution. That protection is what distinguishes this country from so many others. The protection of law, the rule of law, is the foundation of our system of government.
Repaying this country for the debt my family owes, for our very lives, has been the focus of my entire professional career. That is why I served in the Justice Department under five different attorneys general, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. That is why I spent more than 25 years ensuring the rule of law as a judge, and that is why I left a lifetime appointment as a judge and came back to the Justice Department two and a half years ago.
And that is why I'm here today. I look forward to your questions.
JORDAN: Thank you, Mr. Attorney General. You were right. The America is the greatest country ever, and we on this side I know are very concerned about the equal application of the law you talked about in your opening statement.
With that, we will move to five-minute questions and we will start with the gentleman from Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.
REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): Thank you. Mr. Weiss, the rule of law does distinguish our country, but you have not upheld that. You have allowed the rule of law to erode. And that is why 65 percent of the people in this country have no faith in the Department of Justice under your leadership. They do not trust it. They do not trust you.
The reason is because they are witnessing every day a politicized Justice Department in a two-tiered system of justice. For example, they see the DOJ, of course, aggressively prosecuting President Biden's chief political rival, Mr. Trump, while at the same time they see slow-walking and special treatment given to the president's son. That's just a fact that everybody can see with their own two eyes.
I want to focus on that investigation of the Biden family. We have many important questions for you today about that.
Let me just get right to the chase. Has anyone from the White House provided direction at any time to you personally or to any senior officials at the DOJ regarding how the Hunter Biden investigation was to be carried out?
JOHNSON: Have you had personal contact with anyone at FBI headquarters about the Hunter Biden investigation?
GARLAND: I don't recollect the answer to that question, but the FBI works for the Justice Department.
JOHNSON: I'm sorry. You don't recollect whether you've talked with anybody at FBI headquarters about an investigation of the president's son?
GARLAND: I don't believe that I did. I promised the Senate when I came before it for confirmation that I would leave Mr. Weiss in place and that I would not interfere with his investigation.
JOHNSON: Okay. Did you ever --
GARLAND: I have kept that promise.
JOHNSON: All right. Have you had personal contact with anybody at the Baltimore Field Office on the Hunter Biden matter?
JOHNSON: On July 10th, 2023, U.S. Attorney David Weiss told Senator Lindsey Graham, quote, I had discussions with departmental officials regarding potential appointment under 28 USC Section 515, which would have allowed me to file charges in a district outside my own without the partnership of the local U.S. Attorney, end quote. With whom did Mr. Weiss have those discussions?
GARLAND: I'm not going to get into the internal deliberations of the department.
JOHNSON: Oh, but you must, sir. This is important for us. We have oversight responsibility over your department, and we need these answers.
GARLAND: As appropriate, necessary for Mr. Weiss to have conversations with the department. I made clear that if he wanted to bring a case to any jurisdiction, he would be able to do that. The way you do that is to get an order signed by the attorney general called a 515 order. I promised he would be able to do that, and he in his letters made clear he understood he would be able to do that.
JOHNSON: Okay, can you tell us about any briefings or discussions that you personally have had with Mr. Weiss regarding any and all federal investigations of Hunter Biden?
GARLAND: I'm going to say again, I promised the Senate that I would not interfere with Mr. Weiss -- JOHNSON: So, you have not, I'm just -- under oath today, your testimony is, you have not had any discussions with Mr. Weiss about this matter?
GARLAND: Under oath, my testimony today is that I promised that the Senate I would not intrude in his investigation. I do not intend to discuss internal Justice Department deliberations, whether or not I had them.
JOHNSON: Oh, okay, so your testimony today is, you're not going to tell us whether you've had discussions with Mr. Weiss.
GARLAND: My testimony today is I told the committee that I would not interfere. I made clear that Mr. Weiss would have the authority to bring cases that he thought were appropriate. Mr. Weiss's letter --
JOHNSON: All right. Okay, let me stop you for a second time, sir, are you aware that FBI officials have come before this committee and they have stated that there was a cumbersome bureaucratic process that Mr. Weiss had to go through to bring charges in another judicial district?
You know that?
GARLAND: I'm not aware, but that's not true.