Thoughts on Merrick Garland and the Biden DOJ
Read Time: 4 Minutes
Merrick Garland was confirmed as Attorney General in March 2021. During his confirmation hearings, Garland said that he would prioritize fighting extremist violence, starting with the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. In this article, Chuck Rosenberg gives his perspective on the Department of Justice’s independence, along with a clear picture of Garland’s priorities and appointments.
Chuck Rosenberg worked at the highest levels of the Justice Department and on its biggest terrorism, espionage, fraud, and public corruption cases as a federal prosecutor. On March 23, 2021, Chuck participated in an hourlong GLG Roundtable with select GLG clients. These questions were given to Chuck outside of that more in-depth conversation.
Merrick Garland has now been confirmed as Attorney General of the United States. What do you see as his top priorities as he assumes office over the next couple of months and longer term?
Some of his announced priorities are programmatic — international and domestic terrorism, civil rights enforcement, among others; some are thematic — reasserting DOJ’s traditional independence from partisan interference in law enforcement investigations and addressing systemic morale issues. Other priorities will be policy oriented — setting guidelines for prosecutorial charging decisions and for FBI operations and intelligence collection. He will also likely lead on issues involving criminal justice and police reform. Although Justice Department personnel constitute only a small fraction of law enforcement personnel in the United States, the attorney general has an important voice as the chief law enforcement officer in the nation. And, like all attorneys general, events will inevitably dictate other priorities in ways he cannot now foresee.
Some areas of federal law enforcement seemed to be de-prioritized over the past couple of years, such as white-collar crime, public corruption, and environmental crime. Do you see Garland as strengthening these? What may be the first steps?
I do not fully agree with the premise of the question. The overwhelming majority of the work in the Justice Department — by federal prosecutors and special agents — takes place in the “field.” I was a “line” prosecutor for many years in the field, and under numerous attorneys general and presidents of both parties. The nature of our work did not change very much, even as administrations changed. Our prosecutorial work always contained a healthy mix of cases — fraud, violent crime, public corruption, narcotics, crimes against children, and national security cases. Attorneys general may affect this at the margins — i.e., by pushing more resources to the field for a particular initiative — but, in the main, the work in the field is consistent from one administration to another.
Domestic terrorism and extremism are on the rise. How do you expect Garland to address these issues?
This is one place where an “initiative” is in order. Domestic terrorism is on the rise and out of the shadows, and the FBI plays a very important role here. I expect the Attorney General to spend a lot of time on this issue, to be briefed regularly on these investigations, and, in coordination with the FBI, to shift resources. I recently co-authored an article in USA Today on the need to make domestic terrorism a federal crime, and this might be an area where the Attorney General seeks legislation and works with Congress for more authority.
Key appointments and staffers on Garland’s team: who are they and what will their potential influence be?
The most important appointment will be the Deputy Attorney General — the chief operating officer of the Justice Department. Lisa Monaco will hold this job, and she is a superb choice — a veteran federal prosecutor with experience as FBI Chief of Staff and Homeland Security Advisor to President Obama. She will run the department on a day-to-day basis. Other key choices — the heads of the National Security Division and the Criminal Division — and the United States attorneys to run the 93 field offices around the country (I was a U.S. Attorney in two different districts) have not yet been announced.
That said, I am heartened by the talent raising their hands to return to DOJ — there is a deep bench of thoughtful leaders in the running for these jobs. One important side note: by design, the Justice Department has a very thin political layer — and on purpose. Most of the work is done by “career” people, and this is both a good thing and a strength of the department.
About Chuck Rosenberg
Chuck Rosenberg worked at the highest levels of the Justice Department and on its biggest terrorism, espionage, fraud, and public corruption cases as a federal prosecutor. He also ran the Drug Enforcement Administration, served on the staff of FBI Directors Bob Mueller and Jim Comey and two Attorneys General, and was the United States Attorney in two crucial judicial districts. Appointed to DOJ leadership positions by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Chuck now appears regularly on NBC and MSNBC as a legal and law enforcement analyst and hosts the popular podcast “The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg.” “The Oath” — with 9 million downloads over four seasons — is beloved for its thoughtful, civil, and apolitical conversations with fascinating leaders from the world of public service and their tales of humility, integrity, service, and honor.