- AG Merrick Garland defended the DOJ’s decision to shield an internal memo related to Trump from the public.
- The DOJ’s move drew sharp criticism from Democrats and Trump critics who demanded transparency.
- But Garland said on Wednesday that there isn’t “one rule for friends and another for foes.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday defended the Justice Department’s controversial decision to appeal a federal court ruling ordering it to release an internal memo central to the special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice investigation into then-President Donald Trump.
Democrats and Trump critics sharply criticized the move, but Garland said during a congressional budget hearing Wednesday that there is “not one rule for friends and another for foes.”
“The job of the Justice Department in making decisions of law is not to back any administration, previous or present,” Garland told lawmakers at a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing about the 2022 budget. “Our job is to represent the American people. And our job in doing so is to ensure adherence to the rule of law, which is a fundamental requirement of a democracy or a republic or a representative democracy.”
He went on to note that the foundation of the rule of law “is that like cases be treated alike, there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, that there not be one rule for friends and another for foes.”
“It is not always easy to apply that rule,” Garland said. “Sometimes it means that we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and that we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy. But in every case, the job of the Justice Department is to make the best judgment it can as to what the law requires.”
Indeed, by appealing the court’s decision, the department found itself in the unusual position of trying to shield one of the most significant and controversial legal episodes of Trump’s presidency from becoming public.
Garland’s remarks on Wednesday echoed those of legal scholars, who saw the department’s appeal as intended to protect not Trump or then-Attorney General William Barr, but the institutional interests of the federal government, which commonly resists requests for government records.
His testimony also stood in sharp contrast to that of Barr, who made headlines during his tenure as attorney general for going to bat for Trump and frequently turning the department into a mouthpiece for the Trump White House.
At the center of the controversy Garland addressed Wednesday is an Office of Legal Counsel memo that Barr used to clear Trump of obstruction-of-justice following Mueller’s investigation.
Barr’s decision ignited a firestorm and accusations that he was shielding Trump from being held accountable for his myriad efforts to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, which were outlined at length in the special counsel’s final report of his findings.
Barr cited the OLC’s memo in a letter justifying his decision-making process in the obstruction investigation. Last month, US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson accused Barr of misleading the public and ordered the Justice Department to release the document in its entirety.
Shortly after, the Justice Department under Garland announced its intention to appeal Jackson’s ruling, saying that “irreparable harm” would be caused by the release of the full document.
It also addressed Jackson’s assessment that the government’s briefs related to the Mueller report and the OLC memo “incorrectly described the nature of the decisional process in which the Attorney General was engaged.”
“In retrospect, the government acknowledges that its briefs could have been clearer, and it deeply regrets the confusion that caused,” the department said in its filing requesting an appeal, adding that government lawyers “did not intend to mislead the Court” and that “imprecision in its characterization of the decisional process” did not warrant the full release of the memo.
The Justice Department’s decision to appeal Jackson’s ruling was one of several that have put it at loggerheads with the Biden White House.
Last week, the department came under fire when it was reported that it continued the Trump administration’s behind-the-scenes efforts to obtain the email logs of several New York Times reporters. After Biden came out in opposition to the practice, the department reversed course and said it would no longer seize reporters’ records.
And earlier this week, the Justice Department again sent shockwaves through legal and political circles when it said it would continue defending Trump in a defamation lawsuit from the former columnist E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Trump of raping her.
The White House sharply criticized the decision and confirmed that the Justice Department did not consult it before moving forward.
“While we are not going to comment on this ongoing litigation, the American people know well that President Biden and his team have utterly different standards from their predecessors for what qualify as acceptable statements,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
C. Ryan Barber contributed reporting.