In many ways, Merrick Garland’s Monday confirmation hearing for attorney general was almost exactly what his 2016 hearing for the Supreme Court would have been. The issues raised by Republican senators—illegal immigration, guns, executive power, big tech—are pretty much standard GOP fare. You could be excused if, based on the proceedings, it felt as if Donald Trump had never happened.
Ranking minority member Chuck Grassley set the Republican tone for the proceedings by opening with a long list of stock grievances and gripes, none of which had anything to do with Judge Merrick Garland. Explaining away his refusal to hold a hearing for Garland as a SCOTUS nominee back in 2016, Grassley copped to the free-floating rudeness but then highlighted his own pain. He referenced Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 hearing, voicing his anger that Democrats had had the temerity to call Christine Blasey Ford to testify about an alleged sexual assault: “Yes, it is true that I did not give Judge Garland a hearing,” Grassley said. “I also didn’t mischaracterize his record. I didn’t attack his character. I did not go through his high school yearbook. I didn’t make his wife leave the hearing in tears. I took a position on hearings and I stuck to it and that’s it. I admire Judge Garland’s public service.” In other words, something something something, remember Kavanaugh? Let the umbraging begin!
Yes, we heard about Hurricane Crossfire and illegal searches of the Trump campaign. We heard about anti-racist protesters outside the Portland, Oregon, courthouse. We heard about the John Durham report and of course, Hunter Biden. But for all intents and purposes, there was a big Trump-shaped hole in these proceedings that suggest that Senate Republicans hope we will all quickly forget everything Trump did in the past four years and everything they did to permit what he did. Even the repeated questioning about the DOJ investigation into the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol left Trump largely out of the mix, with vague references to “upstream” examinations of what caused it. Instead, we heard about Eric Holder, about James Comey, about Hillary Clinton.
But the Republicans? Still full of rage. In describing a Justice Department that had been “politicized and weaponized,” under President Barack Obama, Sen. Ted Cruz seemingly without irony was silent about what came after. Sen. Josh Hawley was near-tears as he described the scourge of “political targeting” of innocent Republicans by the “Obama-Biden White House” and all the unfair attacks on Republicans. Sen. Mike Lee tried to bait Garland into agreeing with him that Kristen Clarke, tapped to helm the DOJ’s civil rights division was an anti-Semite. (Garland declined to take the bait.) It’s hard to know whether Hawley, Cruz, and Lee have somehow just forgotten the Trump years themselves, or if they really believe that the rest of us possess the short-term memories of a goldfish. Either way, it’s something of a relief to set our clocks back to the old-timey days of free-floating GOP whining about Obama and Eric Holder and gun control and all the ways Republicans have been made to suffer at the hands of bloodthirsty Democrats over the past few years. The free floating whining is probably the most tangible symbol of the return to business as usual.
Among the many reasons Garland is the perfect nominee for this moment? His refusal to be offended or drawn into stupid colloquies over political talking points so aged they smell like old cheese. He kept reminding the committee that he has been around a long time and has seen a lot of things, and he isn’t going to fuss himself with their self-pity. His opening statement, in which he quoted Attorney General and later Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, was a subtle, preemptive caution that he simply has no time for petty politics. Quoting Jackson’s famous warning, Garland said, “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. While prosecutors at their best are one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when they act from malice or other base motives, they are one of the worst.” He closed with Jackson’s admonition that “the citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches the task with humility.”
It was an elegant formulation, and one that, with all the talk of Hunter Biden and James Comey and political prosecutions of innocent Republicans, felt both relevant and deeply out of step with our current moment. Perhaps more than anything, it was an indication that Garland and the Justice Department and the country are moving forward, and onward. In response, Senate Republicans appear to be retreating to the bland comforts on offer back in 2016, hand-wringing over the Fast and the Furious (really Ted Cruz?) and the good old days in which Donald J. Trump was still just a TV clown.