WASHINGTON—The already frosty relationship between President Biden and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, is now in a deep freeze.
Respect and admiration among White House aides for Garland, a longtime federal appeals-court judge chosen to underscore the independence of the Justice Department, has shifted for some into resignation and distrust. They point to Garland having appointed not just a special counsel to investigate former President Donald Trump, but two others as well: one looking into Biden and another probing his son, Hunter Biden. On Thursday, the latter indicted the younger Biden on gun charges.
Some Biden aides have said they see Garland’s handling of the inquiries into the Biden family as driven less by a dispassionate pursuit of justice than by a punctilious desire to give the appearance that sensitive investigations are walled off from political pressure, people familiar with the matter say.
Those aides point out, for example, that prosecutors closed within months an inquiry into classified documents found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home, but assigned a special counsel—with wider latitude and more independence—to examine similar issues for Biden, also a former vice president. That probe remains open.
As for the Hunter Biden case, a lawyer for him said the decisions to appoint a special counsel and indict the president’s son after he had agreed to a plea deal reflected “partisan interference in this process.”
A spokeswoman for Garland declined to comment. White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said Biden appointed Garland “because of his decades of fidelity to the rule of law consistent with his commitment when he ran for president to restore the independence of the Justice Department, free from political interference.”
The attorney general’s allies say those appointments aren’t him bending to pressure, but rather insulating the probes that touch on Biden—Garland’s boss and the man who appointed him. Garland has pledged to lawmakers not to interfere with the Hunter Biden investigation, and President Biden has repeatedly said any decisions about the investigations are “up to the Justice Department.”
“He’s doing what the president asked him to do, and that is restore justice to DOJ, and follow the facts and follow the law and keep the politics out of decision-making,” said Anthony Coley, Garland’s former spokesman, who said Garland has never been a frequent presence at the White House.
Hunter Biden’s plea deal, agreed to in June, raised hopes among President Biden’s allies that his yearslong legal and personal drama could largely be resolved and not hang over the 2024 presidential campaign, in which Biden is running for re-election. After the agreement imploded in court, though, Garland made the Trump-appointed Delaware U.S. attorney, David Weiss, a special counsel to continue the five-year probe.
That left some White House aides believing Garland had mismanaged the inquiry, the people said. Some Biden aides also felt Garland should have taken a firmer hand after agents working on the case came forward to Republican lawmakers with allegations of improper interference in the investigation, which the aides viewed as agents improperly leaking investigative information. Hunter Biden’s lawyers have argued as much directly to the Justice Department, while the agents have said they were reporting concerns through appropriate channels.
The agents’ accounts have fueled criticism of the Hunter Biden investigation among Republicans, who plan to grill Garland about the case next week during what is expected to be a fiery hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this week announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Biden, which the White House has dismissed as evidence-free and “extreme politics.”
Adding to the fraught relationship between the Justice Department and the White House, special counsel Robert Hur has been negotiating with President Biden’s lawyers for weeks over the contours of an interview with the president, according to people familiar with the matter. Hur was appointed by Garland in January to investigate why classified documents ended up at a Washington think-tank office used by Biden after he left the vice presidency, and at his Wilmington, Del., home.
The two sides haven’t been able to agree on many details of the interview, including what the scope of questions would be, the people said.
Allies of both Garland and Biden compare their relationship to the tense one between President Clinton and Janet Reno, his attorney general for eight years. Clinton was frustrated that Reno allowed an investigation into the failed Whitewater land deal to expand to a wide-ranging probe that ultimately ensnared Clinton for his sexual relationship with a White House intern. Garland had worked as a senior official at the Justice Department under Reno.
“Merrick comes from exactly the same school,” said a former department official who worked with both Reno and Garland. “They both believe very strongly in the independent and nonpolitical nature of the department, which is good for the department, but not always so good for the attorney general’s relationship with the president.”
The dynamic between a president and attorney general is often an awkward one, as the nation’s top law enforcer is expected to advance the president’s agenda as a member of his cabinet while also maintaining independence over prosecutorial and investigative decisions.
President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, were sometimes criticized for being close friends known to hang out on Martha’s Vineyard vacations, with Holder once describing himself as the president’s wingman.
Conversely, Trump was known to grow furious when his attorney generals declined to prosecute rivals and show leniency to allies. He fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after he recused himself from the department’s investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sessions later said he expected to be fired, so he kept a copy of his resignation letter in his back pocket every time he visited the White House.
Critics initially accused Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, of being too close to the president. Their relationship deteriorated after Barr’s Justice Department didn’t prosecute high-profile figures during an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, and finally ended in Barr’s resignation after he said investigators had found no widespread fraud that would have changed Trump’s 2020 election loss.
“Attorneys general should be sympathetic to the goals of the administration but shouldn’t be too close personally to the president,” Barr said in an interview. Of an attorney general’s role, he added: “There’s no escaping. The attorney general has to own these decisions in high-profile cases. He can’t say, ‘Well, I just left it up to someone else.’”
Seeking a course correction from those turbulent years, Biden said he chose Garland precisely because he wasn’t viewed as a political hire and could “restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the Department of Justice.”
Garland has since sought to harden the bright-line barrier between the Justice Department and politics, re-emphasizing department rules about how and when officials can speak to their counterparts down Pennsylvania Avenue. Garland said he agreed to take the job because Biden had promised that the Justice Department would make all decisions about investigations and prosecutions, including the criminal tax investigation already under way into Hunter Biden.
When Garland attended a reception in the East Room at the White House last month, President Biden said to him: “Attorney General Garland—I haven’t seen you in a long while. It’s good to see you.”
The crowd laughed, and Biden added: “You think I’m kidding. I’m not.”