New Attorney General Thanks Employees for Their Public Service, Vows Commitment to ‘Norms’

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

The new attorney general on Thursday thanked the Justice Department’s employees for their dedication to public service, as he took over the department that was rife with allegations of political interference under the Trump administration.

“When I walked in the door of Main Justice this morning, it really did feel like I was coming home. I first walked into this building when I was 26 years old. I was here for a job interview and I was awestruck,” said Merrick Garland, in an address that reached most of Justice’s 115,000 employees via video. That is “the way we want everyone who interviews at DoJ to feel…For all of you and for me, public service is more than a job. It is a calling. All of you have chosen the Department of Justice over other places where you might have used your skills and where you might have earned a higher salary. I am grateful beyond words for your service to this country.”

Garland’s vast legal experience includes career and non-career positions at the Justice Department. He was most recently a judge for the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. His first day as attorney general came five days before the fifth anniversary of former President Obama nominating him to be a Supreme Court justice. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked the Senate from taking up the nomination, citing the upcoming 2016 presidential election, which was seen as contradictory when McConnell rushed through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation last fall.

In his address, Garland—confirmed by a vote of 70-30 in the Senate Wednesday—noted he worked under five attorney generals appointed by four different presidents, but “I know that some of you have notched up plenty more.”

He said hoped he could have been standing in front of more employees, but that was not permissible due to the coronavirus pandemic. “That, however, is a small disappointment compared to the hardships that many of you have suffered and the additional burdens you have borne as a consequence of the pandemic,” Garland said.

During his confirmation hearing last month, he affirmed, “I am not the president’s lawyer, I am the United States’ lawyer.” He pledged to “protect” the department from political pressure. He also said investigating and holding those involved accountable for the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 would be a main priority.

“The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the norms that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee since Edward Levy’s stint as the first post-Watergate attorney general,” Garland told employees on Thursday. The norms do not change based on political party, relationships, wealth, status, race or ethnicity, he added.

Garland is taking over after four years of the Trump administration, in which there were widespread allegations of politicization at the department and of Attorney General William Barr serving as the president’s personal attorney.

Most recently, the whistleblower advocacy group the Government Accountability Project filed complaints Wednesday on behalf of anonymous whistleblowers, with the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Office of Special Counsel and Justice Department inspector general. The complaints concerned a political appointee’s alleged “improper intervention” in the promotion process for the civil division assistant director, a career position, two days before the appointee resigned on January 14.

Appointee Jeffrey Bossert Clark chose “the least experienced finalist who had already been passed over” and also “the one and only candidate who volunteered to defend one of the Trump administration’s most controversial policies,” according to the complaint. The policy in question was banning pregnant undocumented minors in federal immigration facilities from receiving abortions.

Clark was the acting assistant attorney general for the civil division and the assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division, and was the same official who worked on a plan with Trump where Clark would replace then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and then advance Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud in Georgia, as The New York Times reported in January. However, Trump decided not to remove Rosen after the top leaders at the department threatened to resign en masse.