Merrick Garland‘s memo about angry parents at school board meetings was a flashpoint in his appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee, with Republicans accusing the attorney general of chilling time-honored dissent in communities grappling with issues such as critical race theory and mask mandates.
Conservative lawmakers repeatedly pressured Mr. Garland about why he issued the Oct. 4 memo, which directed the FBI to investigate a “disturbing spike” in threats of violence, harassment and intimidation against school officials. They also accused him of having a conflict of interest because his son-in-law leads an education firm that markets curricula related to critical race theory.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, noted that Mr. Garland issued the directive just five days after the National School Boards Association requested help from President Biden to quell stormy meetings across the country. The lawmaker called it “a snitch line on parents … who object to some racist, hate-America curriculum.”
“If that’s not political, I don’t know what is,” Mr. Jordan told the attorney general. “Americans are afraid. They tell me, for the first time, they fear their government. I think your memo … was the last straw. It was the catalyst for a great awakening that is just getting started. Americans are pushing back because Americans value freedom.”
The attorney general said the sources for his finding of a “disturbing spike” in threats were primarily the NSBA letter and news reports.
Mr. Garland repeatedly told lawmakers that his memo addressed threats of violence and actual violence, not free speech. He said the Justice Department “supports and defends the First Amendment rights of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in schools.”
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“That is not what the memorandum is about at all, nor does it use the words ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘Patriot Act,’” Mr. Garland said. “I can’t imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstance of parents’ complaint about their children.”
He said FBI agents won’t be attending school board meetings and that his memo was intended to foster cooperation with state and local law enforcement agencies.
On other hot-button issues, Mr. Garland fared little better. He seemed to struggle to respond to questioning by Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, about the Justice Department’s role in enforcing immigration judges’ orders. The department oversees immigration judges.
Trump White House adviser and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller tweeted that it was a “stunning exchange.”
“Garland refused to say that illegals who skipped court hearings should be found & deported and seemed scarily clueless about the fact that Biden’s DHS has barred ICE officers from doing so,” he wrote.
Mr. Garland deflected Democrats’ questions on whether his department would pursue former President Donald Trump for suspected legal violations. He also dodged a question from Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican, on whether he would appoint a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden‘s high-priced art sales. The attorney general said he would take it “under advisement.”
“The Department of Justice has a long-standing policy of not commenting on investigations,” Mr. Garland said. “I’m going to have to rest on that.”
Democrats also zeroed in on voting rights, prosecution of hate crimes and investigations into the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Mr. Garland said the Justice Department “has undertaken an extraordinary effort to ensure that the perpetrators of criminal acts on Jan. 6 are held accountable.”
The attorney general called the attack on the Capitol “an intolerable assault, not only on the Capitol and the brave law enforcement personnel who sought to protect it, but also on a fundamental element of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.”
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, told Mr. Garland that the Jan. 6 attack is part of a “growth in extremist ideology [that] is echoed in an epidemic of violence and intimidation directed at our health care professionals, teachers, essential workers, school board members and election workers.”
“There is a broader pattern here. In each of these cases — former President Trump’s big lie, the rise in hate crimes against citizens of Asian descent, and the growing threats of violence against public servants — the same set of individuals have leveraged the same sorts of misinformation, stoked the same sorts of grievances and shown remarkably little interest in solving our problems,” Mr. Nadler said in his opening statement.
Republicans steered the hearing time and again to Mr. Garland‘s memo about school board meetings.
Under questioning by Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, Mr. Garland said he was unaware of a high-profile rape case in the Loudoun County, Virginia, school system that led to one heated school board meeting.
“This sounds like a state case, and I’m not familiar with it. … I don’t know any of the facts of this case,” Mr. Garland told the lawmaker. “No, I do not think that parents getting angry at school boards for whatever reason constitute domestic terrorism. It’s not even a close question.”
Mr. Roy said later on social media, “It defies logic that the Attorney General of the United States, having issued a memorandum targeting parents at school boards, is unaware of the absolute travesty of Loudoun County and the treatment of Scott Smith [the father of the girl who said she was raped] in advance of a radical, woke, leftist agenda.”
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, said it was “deeply disturbing” that the White House chose to “sic” Mr. Garland on parents.
“Not in a million years did we dream that one day we’d see the Justice Department treat parents as domestic terrorists,” Mr. Chabot said. “Parents speaking up at a school board meeting … is clearly a First Amendment activity. … These parents have every right to be heard, even if former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe [a candidate for governor again this year] thinks otherwise. We don’t need you, your Justice Department and the FBI trampling on the rights of American parents who just want the best possible education for their children.”
Mr. Garland rejected accusations by Rep. Mike Johnson, Louisiana Republican, that he has a conflict of interest with his son-in-law’s work for an education firm that pushes school curricula related to critical race theory.
“There are no conflicts of interest that anyone could have,” Mr. Garland testified.
Mr. Johnson noted that Mr. Garland‘s son-in-law, Xan Tanner, co-founded Panorama Education, which he said has pushed ideas related to critical race theory and provided services to school districts across the country. The relationship has raised questions about how much Mr. Garland‘s family could benefit from a crackdown on protests against school boards.
“The very basis of [parents’] objection is the curricula that your son-in-law is selling,” Mr. Johnson told the attorney general. “Why wouldn’t you submit to a simple ethics review? You are not respecting our rules. … This is a great concern.”
Mr. Johnson said federal regulations require ethics reviews in cases where officials’ actions could benefit his family, “and your son-in-law clearly meets that definition.” The lawmaker said the issue is “worthy of investigation.”
Mr. Garland replied, “There’s nothing in this [Oct. 4] memorandum on the kinds of curriculum that are taught. This memorandum is aimed at violence and threats of violence.”
Asked again whether he sought ethics guidance before issuing the memo, Mr. Garland replied, “This memorandum was not related to the financial interests of anyone. This memorandum is aimed at violence and threats of violence.”
“You don’t get to make that decision yourself,” Mr. Johnson said. “Your impartiality is being called into question.”
“I am exquisitely aware of the ethics requirements,” said Mr. Garland, a former federal judge.
“But you’re not following them,” Mr. Johnson responded.
Central to critical race theory is the idea that U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and that Whites still oppress Blacks and other people of color more than 150 years after the end of slavery and decades after advances of the civil rights movement.
Many Republican lawmakers say this school of thought is spreading dangerously through American classrooms, workplaces and government offices. It grew out of a field called critical legal theory, which took root in the 1970s, according to the American Bar Association.