For Garland, the FBI’s search of Trump property makes it troublesome to keep away from political arguments

When President Biden put Merrick Garland in charge of the Justice Department last year, he chose a cautious Court of Appeals judge known to be politically moderate and capable of reaching a consensus.

Garland, a former federal prosecutor, would seek to restore confidence in the sprawling and powerful law enforcement agency after the tumultuous Trump presidency, his supporters have said. He would try to convince the public and lawmakers that he was an apolitical attorney general, even as he tackled some of the nation’s most contentious political issues.

But the FBI’s highly unusual, court-authorized raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club on Monday threw Garland Square into the midst of a massive political firestorm. The search, which was part of a long-running investigation into possible misuse of presidential documents, was praised by Democrats who had hoped the Justice Department would seriously investigate Trump and the ire of conservatives who condemned the search as an abuse of power.

Trump called the court-authorized search “prosecutorial misconduct” and the “arming of the justice system.” Some of his supporters say the FBI’s action could strengthen Trump’s base when he runs for president in 2024.

Republican allies on Capitol Hill denounced Garland and vowed to turn the tables and investigate the Justice Department. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said the attorney general should resign or be indicted.

Merrick Garland’s goal is to restore the integrity of the Justice Department. His legacy is still defined by Trump.

The partisan outcry was the opposite of what Garland has been aiming for in his 17 months in office, during which he launched several high-profile civil rights investigations and efforts to combat arms trafficking and hate crimes, while also ending the sprawling investigations of Jan June 6, 2021 , riots in the US Capitol and the unprecedented effort by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Garland has consistently declined to discuss this investigation or any other ongoing investigation, whether it involves the former president or not. He has repeatedly pledged to follow facts wherever they lead and hold accountable for anyone who breaks the law, regardless of who that person is.

At press conferences, he dodges reporters’ inevitable questions about Trump. Two of the four reporters allowed to ask questions about charges against police officers in connection with the killing of Breonna Taylor at a news conference last week chose to ask about Trump’s investigation. Garland declined to answer both times.

For months, Trump’s critics – particularly but not limited to those on the left – have slammed Garland for not acting quickly to investigate Trump on multiple fronts. In recent weeks and months, the Justice Department and the US Attorney’s Office in Washington quietly began receiving communications from those in Trump’s inner circle and subpoenaing witnesses to appear before a grand jury, clearly indicating that Trump’s actions and talks had become part of the scope of the probe related to January 6th.

“You will no doubt have people saying this is the ultimate political act,” Donald B. Ayer, an assistant attorney general under President George HW Bush, said of the raid. “But that’s nonsense. … He has a job to do.”

The Justice Department would not comment on whether Garland signed off on the FBI crackdown, and Garland has not spoken out on it. He made only public comment Monday about the sentencing of three men on federal charges related to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who was killed while jogging in his Georgia neighborhood.

“The Justice Department’s indictment in this case and today’s court rulings make it clear that hate crimes have no place in our country,” Garland said in a statement. “Protecting civil rights and countering white supremacist violence was a founding goal of the Department of Justice and one we will continue to pursue with due urgency.”

What could the Mar-a-Lago search mean for Trump legally?

Kristy Parker — a former federal prosecutor and attorney for the Protect Democracy advocacy group — said that while it was inevitable that the response to the search would be politicized, Garland’s silence before and after the search of Trump’s property was critical for him to build trust in the build process. She said it shows that the attorney general made no attempt to appeal to any group during the investigation and the investigation ran its course.

“It’s important to look at the way what’s being done, not just the substance of what’s being done,” Parker said. “And depoliticizing the ministry to ensure no one is above the law is just as important as trying to avoid prosecuting the president or anyone from the opposing political party.”

However, some attorneys have questioned why the Justice Department and FBI would conduct such a high-profile search of a former president’s residence for missing documents, even if some of them are classified (acting presidents have sweeping powers to declassify documents, further complicating the situation ).

Stanley Brand, a former House attorney who represents some of the Jan. 6 defendants and witnesses, said search warrants don’t always yield blockbusters or useful information. He called the FBI search of Trump’s property a huge escalation in the investigation of documents illegally brought to Mar-a-Lago. If investigators don’t recover materials showing there were serious national consequences for the materials he may have kept, it could damage the Justice Department’s reputation, Brand said.

“If they’re trying to recover from the perception that their decision-making was skewed by the Trump era, that’s not going to help,” Brand said. “Part of it depends on what happens after that.”

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