WASHINGTON — Republicans subjected Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to a four-hour grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, a harbinger of the fights that loom ahead as the party targets the Justice Department in the months leading up to the 2024 election.
One by one, Republican senators accused Mr. Garland — testifying before Congress for the first time since appointing special counsels to investigate former President Donald J. Trump and President Biden — of politicizing the department by aggressively investigating Republicans and conservative activists while shielding Democrats.
They also rebuked Mr. Garland over a range of policy and law enforcement issues, including his response to the fentanyl and immigration crises as well as the court’s decision in June to end the constitutional right to an abortion.
But the most pointed exchange came in the final 20 minutes of the session, when most of the panel’s Democrats had left the room. He was left to field a volley of questions from Republicans about his actions in the investigations involving Mr. Trump as well as the inquiries into Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.
“You have one tier of justice for people that are conservatives and another for those that are on the left,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee.
Until then, lawmakers had mostly steered away from pressing about multiple investigations into top officials: an inquiry into Mr. Trump’s retention of sensitive government documents, the high-stakes examination of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of government records, or the long-running federal inquiry into his son Hunter on possible weapons and tax transgressions.
In a round of follow-up questions, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who has questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s victory, seized on how Mr. Garland has approached the Trump investigations.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
“Your intention — and I believe it’s a political intention — to indict President Trump, became infinitely harder when classified documents were discovered repeatedly at President Biden’s multiple residences,” Mr. Cruz said.
He accused Mr. Garland of intentionally leaking details of the Trump investigations to embarrass the former president while keeping secret the investigation into Mr. Biden until after the 2022 midterm elections.
“Does that strike you as at all a double standard?” Mr. Cruz asked.
Mr. Garland responded that “leaks under all circumstances are inappropriate,” adding that he was committed to conducting all investigations fairly.
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The attorney general, in his opening statement, explicitly addressed the topic of his fairness, saying it was his “mission to reaffirm the norms” of the Justice Department.
“The health of our democracy requires that the Justice Department treat like cases alike, and that we apply the law in a way that respects the Constitution,” he said.
Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, pressed Mr. Garland about a report this week in The Washington Post detailing infighting at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Two senior officials in the Washington field office, the article said, resisted the plan to search Mr. Trump’s residence in Florida in August, clashing with their superiors at the bureau and other Justice Department officials.
The attorney general, as is his practice, declined to comment on an open investigation. But he opened a narrow window into an internal deliberation process he seldom discusses publicly.
“I will say as a general matter, and at a high level of generality, that in my experience — long experience — as a prosecutor there is often a robust discussion,” he said. “And it’s encouraged among investigators and prosecutors.”
Republicans also focused on the growing threat posed by the widespread distribution of fentanyl and the illegal online marketing of over-the-counter medications laced with the drug.
“This is a war — act like it — do something,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, quoting the mother of two sons who died of overdoses. “So, 106,000 people die from drug overdoses — 70,000 from fentanyl last year — it’s getting worse. The leading cause of death for Americans age 18 to 45 is death by fentanyl poisoning. What are we doing?”
Tackling the crisis was a top priority, Mr. Garland said, adding that its sheer magnitude, and the ease of producing, transporting and selling the narcotic, made it particularly tough to combat.
“It’s a horrible epidemic, but it’s an epidemic that’s been unleashed on purpose by the Sinaloa and the new-generation Jalisco cartels,” said Mr. Garland, who said he pressured high-ranking officials in Mexico to crack down on producers during a recent trip to the country.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Hawley also grilled Mr. Garland about his response to protests targeting conservative Supreme Court justices and their families after a draft of the court’s decision to overturn federal protections for abortion rights leaked in May.
For the first time in the department’s history, “I ordered United States marshals, 24/7, to defend every residence of every justice,” Mr. Garland responded.
As the day wore on and the questioning intensified, Mr. Garland, a former federal judge, seemed increasingly impatient.
The tension broke briefly when Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, politely asked why Mr. Garland had not admonished Democrats who had denounced Supreme Court justices after their abortion ruling last year.
Mr. Garland, whose nomination to the court in 2016 was scuttled by Senate Republicans, did not offer a direct answer but gave a more sweeping assessment.
“I come from a kinder and gentler era — and a kinder and gentler court — even in terms of the way the members of the court treat themselves,” he said, an apparent reference to reports of squabbling among justices.