Biden allies, once frustrated with Garland, highlight his independence in Trump probe

“This is his moment,” said one source close to the Biden transition.

President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland

President Joe Biden, left, and Attorney General Merrick Garland walk into the East Room of the White House on May 16, 2022

When President-elect Joe Biden was choosing his Cabinet, no decision was as carefully considered — and fiercely debated — as his choice of attorney general. The spotlight now trained on the Justice Department is highlighting why, advisers say, Merrick Garland ultimately won out.

As Republicans and former President Donald Trump have condemned the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago as evidence of what they claim is a “weaponized” Justice Department, the White House is leaning in on Garland’s judicious temperament and methodical approach as an implicit response — even if those qualities haven’t always been embraced by some Democrats.

“For the first year, people in the White House and elsewhere were extremely frustrated with Garland because he ran the department like he was a jurist with law clerks,” said one source familiar with the Biden transition’s internal dynamics.

But now, “this is his moment,” the source added. “He has to make decisions on his own that are highly political. But he has to do it based on being above reproach.”

White House officials say Biden has not just been hands-off when it comes to the work of his Justice Department — he only learned of the Mar-a-Lago search from news reports. And when Garland’s plan to deliver a public statement about the search was announced Thursday, the White House said again that it only heard about it after the fact.

An administration official, while declining to speak in detail about the matter citing its sensitivity, emphasized that the White House has neither sought nor received updates on a potential investigation into Trump. This week’s search, the official noted, represented the kind of tactical decision that would not rise to the level of a briefing for the president, no matter how unprecedented it might have been.

It is likely that the White House would only be notified about a final charging decision, or declination to charge, in advance of a public announcement.

Garland was not the first choice of many in Biden’s circle to lead the Justice Department. Then-Sen. Doug Jones had emerged as a serious contender in part because of a longstanding relationship with Biden, whom he worked with as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“The argument for Jones was, being the attorney general is more than being a jurist. You have to be a political leader. You have to run the department. You have to deal with Congress. … You’re not sitting in a chambers with three law clerks writing opinions,” said the source familiar with the transition.

Some of Biden’s closest and longest-serving aides were among those advocating Jones. As a U.S. attorney, Jones led the prosecution of members of the Ku Klux Klan responsible for the deaths of four young Black girls after the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, which earned him a strong connection to the civil rights community that was pressing Biden to prioritize diversity in key administration posts.

But the shadow of Trump loomed large, as did the very recent precedent of him appointing a political ally, and another Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions, as his first attorney general.

And as Biden transition officials weighed the top Justice Department role, they knew the investigation into a soon-to-be former president would not be the only highly sensitive matter facing a new attorney general. A month after his father won the presidency, Biden’s son Hunter disclosed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware informed his attorney that they were investigating what he called “his tax affairs.”

When asked by NBC News a week later if the investigation of his son had been raised in connection with his search for an attorney general, Biden said: “The attorney general of the United States of America is not the president’s lawyer. I will appoint someone who I expect to enforce the law as the law is written. Not guided by me.”

That investigation is ongoing.

Sources who spoke with NBC News for this story, along with others at the White House, declined to discuss the nature of Biden and Garland’s relationship since both came into their current posts. A review of Biden’s public schedule shows Garland has joined Biden for public events just nine times, with most focused on crime or gun violence prevention.

In a statement to NBC News, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said Biden chose Garland “because he would be loyal to the law and our Constitution and not be influenced by politics.”

“The President, the Attorney General, and the administration writ large have honored that commitment, keeping the Department of Justice completely independent when it comes to investigations. The President is proud of that,” he added.

This week, as Republicans have attacked the Justice Department and the FBI over the Mar-a-Lago raid, the White House has leaned heavily on Biden’s own words when he nominated Garland one day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: “There is no more important and heartfelt effort on my part than restoring the independence and integrity of our Justice Department.”

Asked last month by Lester Holt about public pressure facing the department, Garland said that the “only pressure that I, my prosecutors or the agents feel is the pressure to do the right thing.”

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