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Garland faces grilling over decisions to charge abortion protesters

The attorney general also fielded questions from senators about fentanyl prosecutions.
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Attorney General Merrick Garland's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday grew heated when Republican lawmakers grilled him on the prosecution of protesters on both sides of the abortion fight.

The Republican ire was focused on two fronts: that the Department of Justice hadn't charged a single protester under a statue that makes it a crime to protest outside a Supreme Court justice's home and that separately a Pennsylvania anti-abortion demonstrator had been charged under federal law.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shouted that the DOJ “sat on its hands” by not charging a single protester outside the homes of justices in the wake of the Dobbs decision last year, which overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed the right to abortion access.

"We haven’t but we’ve defended the lives of justices,” Garland responded, referring to the 70 U.S. Marshals he assigned to protect justices.

Cruz also expressed outrage about the prosecution of a Pennsylvania anti-abortion protester, Mark Houck. He was acquitted by a jury earlier this year for charges under a federal law that makes it a crime to engage in certain behaviors at abortion clinics or "crisis pregnancy centers," which are run by anti-abortion groups that target pregnant young women to try to pressure them to not seek abortions. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said that Houck’s seven children were home when law enforcement agents apprehended him. Hawley cited Houck’s wife’s claim that the children were screaming as the agents pointed guns at the home.

“That is a disgraceful performance by the Justice Department and a disgraceful use of resources,” Hawley said.

Cruz went on to accuse the DOJ of not making attacks on “crisis pregnancy centers” a priority, a charge Garland denied.

"It is a priority for the department to prosecute and investigate and find the people who are doing those firebombings," Garland said, noting one group allegedly behind the vandalism is being prosecuted and telling Cruz he'd be happy to receive more information if he had any.

In a later exchange, Cruz also accused Garland of using President Joe Biden's son Hunter as a "scapegoat" to cover for DOJ's probes into former President Donald Trump. Hunter Biden is being investigated on tax-related charges, and Trump is being investigated for his role in the Jan. 6 riot and for allegedly mishandling documents with classification markings.

“I believe you very much want to indict Donald J. Trump. Toward that end, the Department of Justice has leaked that DOJ is investigating and intends to indict Hunter Biden. The purpose of those leaks, I believe, was to set the predicate for an indictment of Trump,” Cruz said, before accusing DOJ of leaking a picture of classified documents that were recovered in the FBI's August search of Trump's estate in Florida.

Garland noted that the picture Cruz was referring to was from a court filing, and it "was not a leak."

"Leaks are in violation of our regulations and requirements," Garland said. "They are inappropriate and we don't know where they come from."

Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pressed Garland about what steps the DOJ has taken to investigate Hunter Biden. Garland reiterated his previous pledge to not interfere in the matter, which is being overseen by Delaware's U.S. attorney, who is a Trump appointee.

Separately, Garland was quizzed about how the Justice Department is working to prevent deaths from drug overdoses from fentanyl.

"We all want to work with you on this side," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in his opening remarks after saying he believes that the rise of crime throughout the country has not been taken "as seriously as we should."

Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Graham started the hearing by grilling Garland about the fentanyl crisis.

Durbin said there is a “general consensus” on the committee that more needs to be done about the sale of “phony drugs sold on social media platforms that have fueled fentanyl trafficking."

Garland said he agrees with the senators that more needs to be done. He said he has met with families of children and young adults who often think that they’re taking prescription drugs bought online, but are actually filled with fentanyl. Garland said that in addition to the DEA reaching out to social media companies on the issue, the sale of “phony drugs” needs to be taken off platforms and algorithms should not be used to recommend them to users.

Garland also faced questions on the DOJ's handling of threats against school board officials. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., accused Garland of creating a "chilling effect" for parents trying to protect their children from Covid-era school board policies. He referred to Garland's decision to mobilize the FBI to work with state and local law enforcement in addressing surging threats against school board members and teachers.

Garland countered that the DOJ was only investigating threats of violence against school personnel and that peaceful protests by parents and "vigorous public debate" at school board meetings was protected by the First Amendment.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked about security at the southern border, arguing in his question that criminal organizations have overwhelmed Border Patrol agents so that traffickers could move drugs into the United States.

Garland said that the DOJ is focused on fentanyl with “enormous urgency” and that he has twice traveled to Mexico to increase cooperation on the issue. He said that the border was largely the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We do what we can do with respect to the jurisdictions that we have,” Garland said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pressed Garland about protesters in the wake of the leak of the Dobbs decision last year. Lee asked Garland why those who protested outside the homes of Supreme Court justices have not been charged, despite their attempts to “influence jurisprudence.”

Garland said he ordered more than 70 U.S. Marshals to protect justice’s homes around the clock. He said the Marshals have been advised to arrest people under any federal statute.

Garland started his remarks by praising the employees of the Department of Justice, a response to criticism that the sprawling agency has politicized its enforcement of the law.

Garland spoke to the DOJ’s accomplishments under his tenure to uphold the rule of law, keep the country safe and protect civil rights. These include combatting the rise of violent crime and hate crimes, working with Ukrainian partners in defense of democracy, and protecting reproductive freedom.

“Every day, the 115,000 employees of the Justice Department work tirelessly to fulfill our mission: to uphold the rule of law, to keep our country safe, and to protect civil rights. Every day, our FBI, ATF and DEA agents, and our Deputy U.S. Marshals put their lives on the line to disrupt threats and respond to crises,” Garland said.

“Every day, Department employees counter complex threats to our national security,” he said. “They fiercely protect the civil rights of our citizens. They pursue accountability for environmental harms. They prosecute crimes that victimize workers, consumers, and taxpayers. They defend our country’s democratic institutions. And every day, in everything we do, the employees of the Justice Department adhere to and uphold the rule of law that is the foundation of our system of government.”

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., questioned Garland about recent media reports, including by NBC News, of unlawful child labor in the country. He said the department’s criminal and civil rights divisions were reaching out to the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services to offer assistance in addressing the issue, though he said that a “limited number” of criminal statutes would apply. Garland also said he had met with the DOJ’s forced labor task force on Tuesday to address the reports.