Merrick Garland's attorney general confirmation hearing: Day 1

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 12:09 p.m. ET, February 24, 2021
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1:03 p.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Garland says he's in favor of any legislation to strengthen voting rights

From CNN's Christina Carrega

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland is in favor of any legislation that will strengthen voting rights while enforcing existing tools that prevents voter suppression.

Garland said in response to a question from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, that while he is not privy to the specifics of the legislation, he believes it is important to afford every American the opportunity to vote.

"Any legislation that will encourage more voting, I strongly support ... the Department still has other tools, it has section two ... it prevents interference with voting practices and procedures that interfere with minorities' ability to vote and it is something the Department has always looked to as an important tool," Garland said during his confirmation hearing today.

12:55 p.m. ET, February 22, 2021

GOP Sen. Grassley lauded Garland today after blocking his Supreme Court nomination in 2016

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

Merrick Garland is testifying now before the Judiciary Committee five years after he became the poster child for the Republican blockade of an open Supreme Court seat in the final year of former President Obama's term when Senate Republicans denied even a hearing for Garland as Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

After Trump won the White House in 2016 and selected a new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, Garland returned to his position as the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. While he stepped down from that position a year ago, he remains on the appellate court and has served on the federal bench for more than two decades.

He'll be leaving that appointment to take over a department often at the center of the political crises of the Trump administration.

While Republicans blocked Garland's Supreme Court nomination, his selection at attorney general was lauded by both Democrats and Republicans on Monday, and he is expected to be easily confirmed.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the panel's top Republican, used his opening statement to defend the 2016 decision he made as the committee's chairman not to hold a hearing for Garland.

"I took a position on hearings and I stuck to it, and that's it," Grassley said. "I admire Judge Garland's public service."

Republicans have pressed Garland on whether he would allow the investigations into both Hunter Biden and the FBI's handling of the 2016 Russia investigation to continue unimpeded.

Republicans also may push Garland to fully investigate Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after reports last week that federal investigators were investigating his handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long term care facilities in New York.

12:42 p.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Garland says death penalty cases gave him "pause" and he expects Biden will halt federal prosecutions

From CNN's Christina Carrega

Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland says he is "very concerned" about death penalty cases and is hopeful that since President Biden is opposed to the practice, that they will halt again. 

"I have had a great pause about the death penalty. I am very concerned about the large number of exonerations that have occurred through DNA evidence and otherwise, not only in death penalty convictions, but also in other convictions. I think it's a terrible thing that occurs when somebody is convicted of a crime that they did not commit ... the most terrible thing happens if someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit," Garland said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said that in the last six months of the Trump administration there have been more federal executions than in the past 60 years, it "was nothing short of killing spree and it worries me."

Leahy asked Garland if the 2003 moratorium — that restricted when the federal death penalty can be implemented — would be reinstated. 

Garland says within the nearly 20 years since the moratorium was put in place, he had several moments of pause regarding the death penalty and expects Biden to follow through with stopping federal executions.

"The data is clear that it has been enormously disparate impact on Black Americans and members of communities of color, and exonerations also that something like half of the exonerations had to do with Black men. So all of this has given me pause. And I expect that the President will be given direction in this area. If so, expected, not at all unlikely that we will return to the previous policy," Garland said.

To date, there are 185 people, who were sentenced to death and later found to be wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 


12:28 p.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Garland calls body cameras "very important tool" to protect citizens and law enforcement

From CNN's Josh Campbell

Al Drago/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Al Drago/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for attorney general, said Monday that he strongly believes in the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers in the United States. 

In response to a question from Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, about whether he would support the deployment of more police body cameras for police officers, Garland said he would welcome more resources from Congress, calling body cameras important tools for accountability. 

“I personally think body cams are a very important tool, both to protect officers and to the protect the citizens,” Garland said.

During his answer, Garland made reference to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, noting that the public knows about the valiant acts of so many officers largely because of images captured on video.

"The fact that we were able to see exactly what was happening to the officers and the way in which they were carrying about their duties in the best way they could, is only possible to be captured because of the body cameras," Garland said.


12:07 p.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Some Senate Judiciary Republicans say they're impressed with Garland so far

From CNN's Ali Zaslav and Ali Main

Al Drago/Getty Images
Al Drago/Getty Images

Some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled openness to Merrick Garland's nomination to be attorney general in the first break of his confirmation hearing on Monday.

Sen. John Cornyn said he’s “impressed” with Garland’s experience, temperament and commitment to equal justice. 

“One of the commitments I’ve asked him to make is no politics at the Department of Justice ... and he made that commitment,” the Texas Republican said. 

Asked about Garland's response to a question about former FBI Director James Comey’s news conference on Hillary Clinton, Cornyn said, the nominee “wasn’t comfortable answering that question, but made it clear that’s inappropriate for a prosecutor to do."

Cornyn added that he is glad that Garland "is for restoring the reputation of the department, I think that’s very important for public confidence and something that I think we need sorely."

Asked about any concerns with the nomination, Cornyn argued that Garland "has a lot to learn about what’s going on in the world,” pointing to how he said he hadn’t been to the US-Mexico border.

Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana called Garland a "very bright person" and said he has some "pretty direct" questions to ask of the nominee.

When asked about the pointed questions Garland has already received from Senate Judiciary Republicans, Kennedy said Garland "has a reputation of being a person of integrity, and I believe that until he proves otherwise," adding he believes a "reasonable person" can't read DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz's report on the FBI's Russia probe or look at Comey's "antics" around the 2016 election without being concerned about politicization.

Asked about Biden nominees Neera Tanden for head of the Office of Management and Budget and Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary, Kennedy answered "I don't know yet how I'm going to vote on those." 

Tanden's confirmation is on the brink of collapse after two key Republicans, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, announced Monday that they will vote against her nomination, citing her past social media behavior.

12:09 p.m. ET, February 24, 2021

Garland says DOJ's pardon attorney is supposed to prevent corrupt pardon decisions by the president

From CNN's Christina Carrega

Al Drago/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Al Drago/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland on Monday said the Justice Department's pardon attorney plays a large role to "protect the president from improper influence" when it comes to granting pardons to applicants. 

During the Trump administration, "88% of the pardons that he granted had some sort of personal or political connection to the former president," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during the confirmation hearing on Monday. 

Some more context: By the end of Trump's presidency, he issued 237 commutations and pardons that included rappers and a political strategist. Dozens of those who were granted clemency or commutation did not go through the proper channels through the Justice Department's pardon attorney. There are over 14,000 pending clemency requests.

"What do you think we need to do to restore integrity to the pardon process? Obviously, it's an important power of the president, what do you think you could do from the attorney general's position?" Klobuchar asked.

 Garland responded by saying, "Well, senator, you're right.”

“This is a power granted by the constitution to the president. I think the role of the Justice Department through its pardon attorney is to provide a careful and visualized examination of the people who are asking to be pardoned,” he continued. “The office has a set of very detailed regulations which describe when people are appropriate for pardons and when they are not. It provides an important screen that not only yields who maybe should be pardoned but also protects the president from improper influence."

11:36 a.m. ET, February 22, 2021

The hearing is back after a short break

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

The Senate confirmation hearing for President Biden's attorney general nominee Merrick Garland has resumed after a short break.

The senators will now continue to question Garland. Garland is expected to face more questions about politically charged investigations and the prosecution of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

In his testimony so far, Garland vowed to prosecute the "heinous" crimes committed in the attack on the Capitol and to redouble the Justice Department's efforts to provide equal justice amid heated policy debates over race and the criminal justice system.

11:39 a.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Garland lays out how he plans to investigate the Capitol riot

From CNN's From Christina Carrega

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, asked Merrick Garland if he'd be willing "to look upstream" from the Jan. 6 rioters and investigate the "funders, organizers, leaders or aiders and abetters" of the Capitol attack.

Garland said that while the investigation has begun with "the people on the ground," as attorney general he will pursue any and all leads.

Here's how Garland laid out the investigation:

"We begin with the people on the ground and we work our way up to those who are involved and further involved and we will pursue these leads wherever they take us. That is the job of a prosecution."

Answering a question from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Garland also said he plans to get a briefing "on the progress of this investigation" and give the career prosecutors "who are working on this matter 24/7, all the resources they could possibly require to do this."

To date, more than 230 men and women have been charged in connection to the attack that left five people dead, and several others, including law enforcement officers, injured. The riot was an attempt to stop the Senate from counting the electoral votes that confirmed President Biden's win.


11:14 a.m. ET, February 22, 2021

Garland says he has not discussed the Hunter Biden investigation with the President

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Demetrius Freeman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Demetrius Freeman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland told GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley that he had not discussed the federal investigation into Hunter Biden with President Biden.

“The President made abundantly clear in every public statement before and after my nomination that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department. That was the reason that I was willing to take on this job,” he told lawmakers on Monday.

Some background: Federal investigators in Delaware have been examining multiple financial issues involving the younger Biden, including whether he violated tax and money laundering laws in business dealings in foreign countries, principally China, two people briefed on the probe told CNN in December.

The President has made a point of distancing himself from the decision-making at the Justice Department, and as questions about his son swirled earlier this winter, he pledged to install independent leaders at the agency.

These questions were expected at today's hearing as GOP senators had already signaled that they would try to draw out Garland on how he'll handle his full plate of political problems.

CNN's Evan Perez and Pamela Brown contributed reporting to this post.