Attorney General Merrick Garland refused to take the bait.
Republicans, under the leadership of House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, were determined to turn what should have been a routine oversight hearing into a cross-examination of Garland over the prosecution of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden's son Hunter.
Garland would have none of it. He stood for principle — the principle being the independence of the United States Department of Justice. As it should be.
"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. "As the president himself has said, and I reaffirm here today: I am not the president's lawyer. I will add that I am not Congress' prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people."
What does that mean?
It means that Garland appoints special counsels and allows them to do their jobs. In Hunter Biden's case, the prosecutor in charge is David Weiss, a Trump appointee who has been leading the investigation and last month was, at his request, designated as special counsel to give him expanded powers. How he uses them, Garland made clear, is up to him.
In his confirmation hearings, the attorney general promised not to interfere with Weiss' ongoing investigation of the president's son. "I have kept that promise. The way to not interfere is to not investigate an investigation."
That answer led one Republican on the committee to call for the attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress.
The attorney general took the same tack when attacked for the indictments secured by Jack Smith, the special counsel he appointed to investigate Trump. "No one has told me to indict. And in this case, the decision to indict was made by the special counsel."
"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."
If Republicans thought they could intimidate the attorney general, they don't know Merrick Garland. I've known him since law school — we were good friends — and he is not only a brilliant lawyer but a man of principle.
At one point in the hearing, when accused of religious discrimination, he shot back: "The idea that someone with my family background (his family fled the Holocaust) would discriminate against any religion is so outrageous — absurd."
The oversight hearing, which in "normal" times would have focused on issues of policy, criminal justice and the like, this time, according to Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, was intended to "examine how the Justice Department has become politicized and weaponized under the leadership of Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland."
To the great frustration of Republicans, Garland refused to take that bait, just as he has protected his prosecutors from political interference. Indeed, the irony is that it is Trump who is running on a platform of consolidating all power — including the power to control the Justice Department and federal agencies — in the hands of the president.
It is Trump who wants (and, as president, tried) to politicize the Justice Department; that is what he means when he talks about undermining the "deep state."
Garland was selected by Biden because of his reputation as a principled leader who would restore the tradition of an independent Justice Department. And that is what he has done. Whether the Republicans like it or not.
Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. Whether on the pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post or as a television commentator on countless news programs on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, she has tackled legal matters, women's concerns, national politics and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.