As sporting events go, nobody has enjoyed or participated in the years of Merrick-Garland-sucks/ Merrick-Garland-is-a-Warrior takes more than I have. Since the day President Joe Biden announced Garland as his choice to head up the Justice Department (which felt just the tiniest bit too stunty, I confess) I’ve shared the Wimbledon-level of back and forth strong emotions about Garland as icy-jawed “lawyer’s lawyer” and careened back to what seemed like his too-slow, plodding response to Donald Trump’s lawlessness. Like many others I pinged crazily between admiration for his refusal to play politics with the Justice Department and incandescent fury at his refusal to play politics with the Justice Department.
Many of the best hot takes following the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago this week thus took the position that Garland – last week’s mild mannered Clark Kent – is now Superman. Probably my favorite laugh out loud line this week came from Mary Trump who noted tartly on MSNBC that “it never occurred to Donald that somebody who looks like Merrick Garland and talks like Merrick Garland is actually a ninja.” And I confess that like so many others I am tempted to splash joyfully in the narrative waters of Garland as a seven-dimensional chess-master.
But having been down this road too many times to count, starting with the breathless worship for icy-jawed Robert Mueller, I want to sound one tiny note of caution about all the Garland hagiography. Part of the reason the Attorney General’s press conference Thursday night lasted for under three minutes is that this wasn’t in fact Merrick Garland’s rodeo. It was the Justice Department’s slow, plodding and diligent work that got us to the point at which, as my colleague Jeremy Stahl noted Thursday evening, Donald Trump is well and truly boxed in. The former president must either accede to disclosing the materials sought in the search warrant, or he must risk having a judge release them. Both are the outcomes he said he wanted. It’s mad genius, yes. But we should resist the temptation to turn this into a narrative about a single heroic great man who finally outfoxed Trump.
Garland’s most passionate words Thursday evening were in defense of his DOJ, the agents and investigators Trump was maligning and endangering. He defended his FBI agents as “dedicated, patriotic public servants” and said he would not “stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked … Every day they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights. They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves. I am honored to work alongside them.”
His point in this press conference was not just to checkmate the former President, but to stand up for the people in his department who – unseen and unacknowledged by sports fans and critics alike – have just been doing their jobs, professionally and by the book, for the months leading up to this week’s raid. We’ve become so acculturated to “great man” stories (thank you again for this framing, Rebecca Solnit) that we sometimes pop them in where we should be telling eye-glazing “great institution” stories instead. What may be taking place now, as the DOJ investigates the former President with a minimum of fanfare, without leaks to favored press outlets, without rancor or fileting by sound byte is nothing less than a proof of concept: Restoring the Justice Department to its post-Watergate ideals and mission was never going to mean swapping out Bill Barr’s relentless blind partisanship for what felt like equal and opposite partisanship from Merrick Garland.
The fact that President Biden stayed out of the matter; that the FBI attempted to resolve this through subpoena before it sought a search warrant; and that Garland only spoke when his law enforcement subordinates were being threatened and undermined means that we were only seeing the process play out as it ought to have played out. This was and is a team effort; the result of Garland’s sometimes maddening promise to follow the facts wherever they may lead.
None of this is to detract from the AG’s leadership this week. And none of it is to suggest that he won’t be perfectly disappointing in a whole lot of other contexts in the years to come. But the temptation to make this week all about Garland, or all about Garland-Trump Wrestlemania, or about how Garland has been plotting every step of this like a Ken Follett novel is a temptation we in the media should resist if we really want to start to do the work of restoring trust in slow-moving unwieldy institutions. This wasn’t just a checkmate week for the Silver Fox, or for this week’s Silver Fox, but a checkmate for the idea that institutions of justice and law enforcement and measured fact-finding can triumph, if we stop trying to replace their action heroes with our own.
This all may not make for thrilling copy. But it does make for better democracy. And having watched the current Silver Fox at work for the past few decades, I would be willing to bet that nobody agrees with this sentiment more than he does.