Bannon January 6 probe referral puts Attorney General Merrick Garland in center of legal and political storm
It’s a political hot potato that is perhaps unprecedented in US history: How to proceed against an ally of a former President who is accused of dodging a congressional committee investigating an insurrection.
Garland, a former judge on the influential federal DC appeals court, has been hailed by President Joe Biden as “one the most respected jurists of our time.”
Garland pledged against partisanship at his confirmation hearing, telling senators: “I am not the President’s lawyer, I am the United States’ lawyer.”
Garland is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday as the House prepares to vote to hold Bannon in criminal contempt.
The Department responded with a strikingly forceful statement that said that it makes “its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop.”
That didn’t stop Bannon from taking a swipe.
“The Justice Department’s trying to unwind and walk back Joe Biden’s massive mistake,” Bannon said on his podcast, referring to the comment about the non-cooperative witnesses. “He says, ‘No, the all oughta be put in jail, they all oughta be criminal contempt,’ everything like that. That’s not the way it works, Joe.”
“Based on the Committee’s investigation, it appears that Mr. Bannon had substantial advance knowledge of the plans for January 6th and likely had an important role in formulating those plans,” Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney — a Trump critic and one of two Republicans on the committee — said Tuesday.
Trump allies in Congress have embraced Bannon’s legal arguments for not cooperating, as they accuse the select committee of going after witnesses for engaging in constitutionally-protected political speech.
“(Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson) knows there are willing hands at the Department of Justice ready to receive such a referral and to criminalize our politics” Rep. Matt Gaetz said Wednesday at a hearing to consider the contempt vote.
Promises to leave politics out of DOJ prosecution decisions
“I am quite aware that there are people who are criticizing us for not prosecuting sufficiently, and others who are complaining that we are prosecuting too harshly,” Garland said. “This is, you know, part of the territory for any prosecutor in any case.”
In a statement Tuesday, the DC US Attorney’s office said that it would evaluate any contempt referral sent to it by the House “based on the facts and the law.”
Even before his confirmation to the department, Garland was well acquainted with the political firestorms that tend to erupt from the Hill.
His 2016 nomination by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court seat vacated after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death was met with a several monthslong blockade by Senate Republicans that left the seat open for Trump to fill.
In the face of plans already made clear by Republicans to stall his nomination, Garland said at the time that “trust that justice will be done in our courts without prejudice or partisanship is what, in a large part, distinguishes this country from others.”
Garland’s self-proclaimed rejection of partisanship is now on close examination as his department weighs the Bannon referral.
“The one thing you can be sure of is Merrick Garland is not going to make a decision based on political calculations whatsoever,” Seth Waxman, a former solicitor general and longtime colleague of Garland’s, told Fintech Zoom.
Ryan Nobles and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.