Attorney General Garland tells Congress he doesn't take orders from White House

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Merrick Garland struck a defiant tone Wednesday in defending the Justice Department as independent of the White House and Congress, but Republicans attacked him repeatedly for the handling of high-profile investigations of Hunter Biden and Donald Trump.

"Our job is to uphold the rule of law," Garland told the House Judiciary Committee in an uncharacteristically emotional statement that brought him close to tears as he described his family fleeing the Holocaust. “Our job is not to do what is politically convenient."

Garland’s testimony on Capitol Hill came against a backdrop of multiple investigations that are politically fraught. House Republicans are investigating whether to impeach President Joe Biden, in part because of alleged influence peddling by his son Hunter.

The chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, blasted Garland for the department’s “ridiculous” plea deal offered Hunter Biden that fell apart in July, for picking a special counsel who negotiated the deal to continue the probe and for prosecuting Trump for allegedly mishandling classified documents.

“There is one investigation protecting President Biden. There is another one attacking President Trump,” Jordan said. “The Justice Department’s got both sides of the equation covered.”

But the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, accused Republicans of poisoning the political discourse to “stage one political stunt after another” with allegations that have been refuted by committee witnesses. Nadler also said Republicans sought to impeach Biden with no justification while protecting Trump from allegations about the Capitol attack Jan. 6, 2021.

“They have justified conduct that we all know to be wildly illegal like the theft of classified materials and incitement to violence,” Nadler said. “They have sought to exploit our divisions for cynical personal political gain.”

The White House dismissed the hearing as “a not-so-sophisticated distraction” from the potential “costly and dangerous government shutdown” looming Oct. 1 because Congress hasn’t approved spending bills, according to spokesperson Ian Sams.

“These sideshows won’t spare House Republicans from bearing responsibility for inflicting serious damage on the country,” Sams said in a statement.

More: 'An odd situation': President Biden aims to tighten firearms sales. Hunter Biden is caught in the crosshairs

Garland chokes up describing family's escape from religious persecution

Garland choked up and appeared on the verge of tears when recounting how his grandmother was one of five siblings who suffered religious persecution in Eastern Europe around the start of the 20th Century.

While she made it to America, two of her siblings were killed in the Holocaust, he said. Her experience inspired his commitment to spend a career in public service.

Garland said providing equal protection under the law is why he worked in the Justice Department under five attorneys general of both parties and why he returned to the department from a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

“Repaying this country for the debt my family owes, for our very lives, has been the focus of my professional career,” Garland said with tear-filled eyes.

Garland testifies emphatically against targeting Catholics as 'religious extremists'

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., raised questions about a January memo from the FBI’s Richmond, Va., office that described increasing incidents of “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” in “radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology.”

During a Senate hearing in March, Garland described the memo as "appalling" and said it had been withdrawn. But Van Drew asked for a yes-or-no answer to whether Garland considered traditional Catholics “violent extremists.”

Garland reacted emphatically when Van Drew asked for a yes-or-no answer to whether he agreed traditional Catholics are violent extremists.

“The idea that someone with my family background would discriminate against any religious is so outrageous, so absurd, I can’t even answer your question,” Garland said with his voice rising.

Hunter Biden, Trump investigations spotlighted

Hunter Biden faces three federal gun charges after a plea agreement collapsed in July. Republicans argued Garland should have replaced U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware, leading the investigation, with someone more independent, but instead he was elevated to special counsel.

Three congressional committees have held hearings with Internal Revenue Service whistleblowers who contend Biden's tax investigation was "slow-walked," which the Justice Department denies. Some lawmakers criticized the proposed plea agreement as a "sweetheart deal" for Biden because his father is president.

Garland said he never interfered with Weiss and that prosecutions are not based on money or power.

"There is not one set of laws for the powerful and another for the powerless; one for the rich, another for the poor; one for Democrats, another for Republicans; or different rules, depending upon one’s race or ethnicity or religion," Garland said.

Trump faces two federal trials, one for allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House and the other for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the handling of both investigations because classified documents were also found at President Biden’s home and because Trump is Biden’s political rival. Trump has repeatedly blasted special counsel Jack Smith for what he says is a political prosecution.

Garland reminded lawmakers, according to the prepared remarks, that he represents the American people rather than the president or Congress.

“Our job is not to take orders from the President, from Congress, or from anyone else, about who or what to criminally investigate,” Garland said. "The Justice Department works for the American people."

Garland also warned against singling out career public servants for doing their jobs, “particularly at a time of increased threats to the safety of public servants and their families.”

“We will not be intimidated,” Garland said. “We will do our jobs free from outside interference. And we will not back down from defending our democracy.”

'Blissfully ignorant': Fiery exchange between Rep. Gaetz and Garland

One of the fiercest exchanges exploded between Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Garland over alleged Chinese influence on the Biden family.

Gaetz questioned why Chinese companies funneled millions of dollars to Hunter Biden and his relatives for business deals, although Republicans have not yet documented payments to President Biden. After asking a series of rapid-fire questions about North Korea, China and Hunter Biden’s art sales that Garland tried to answer, Gaetz accused him of not being serious.

“Blissfully ignorant,” Gaetz said. “People don’t pay bribes to not get something in return.”

Garland denied interfering with Weiss’ investigation of Hunter Biden.

“I have left these matters to Mr. Weiss,” Garland said. “I have not intruded. I have not interfered.”

When Garland tried to describe the threats North Korea and China pose, he was cut off.

“You’ve already sort of I think screwed the pooch on China,” Gaetz said.

More: Heated moment Rep. Matt Gaetz asks if DOJ told president to 'knock it off'

Rep. Johnson questions Garland about Justice Clarence Thomas' ethics

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has asked the Justice Department to investigate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for potential ethical violations. Johnson asked Garland, a former judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, whether a billionaire ever flew him on a private jet, paid for vacations at exclusive resorts or paid for his godson’s tuition.

Garland nervously said he didn’t want to answer questions that sounded both hypothetical and nonhypothetical. It's also a question that is somewhat personal for him: Garland had been nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice by former President Barack Obama, but Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked a vote on his election-year confirmation.

“I know these are not hypothetical questions and I think this is really not within my realm,” Garland said. “I always held myself to the highest standards of ethical responsibility.”

Garland said he would check with the department about where Johnson's request for an investigation of Thomas stood.

Eliminate the FBI? GOP, Democratic clashes roil hearing. 'They don't trust you!'

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., told Garland that polls found nearly two-thirds of the country has “no faith in the Justice Department under your leadership.”

“They don’t trust it. They don’t trust you,” Johnson said. “The reason is they are witnessing every day a politicized Justice Department and a two-tiered system of justice.”

But Democrats slammed the hearing as a partisan attack on President Biden. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., called it a "clown car." Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., called the hearing "a shameful circus."

More: Hunter Biden will plead not guilty to federal gun charges, and wants court hearing by video: lawyer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AG Merrick Garland tells House DOJ's job is to uphold 'rule of law'