The Senate Republicans' meltdown over the testimony by Attorney General Merrick Garland is an indication of where their political heads are these days. GOP senators took turns blasting Garland, and there were some choice statements:
"This kind of looks like something that would come out of a communist country," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
"Thank God you're not on the Supreme Court. You should resign in disgrace," spat Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK)
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz took the moment to yell at Garland and defend the right to perform a Nazi salute publicly.
So what has got these GOP senators into such a lather? Had the FBI and the DoJ gone authoritarian overnight and begun arresting GOP operatives and political leaders?
No. Apart from their apparent desire to create sound bytes for right-wing media, the senators were apparently outraged that the Department was, well, doing its job. Garland had issued a memo earlier this month that addressed the rising threats of violence against school board members across the country. For some context, these threats are being egged on by coordinated groups on the far-right that are messaging negatively around so-called "Critical Race Theory." They are successfully weaponizing scared parents, who now believe their children are being indoctrinated into leftist, liberal thinking by being required to read books by, for example, Toni Morrison. (Morrison's book "Beloved" was featured in an ad by the GOP Virginia gubernatorial candidate where a parent sought to have the book banned from the curriculum.)
These parents have filled acrimonious school board meetings demanding that their districts not teach history or literature that makes white children feel bad about their own race. As tempers and the rhetoric have grown more heated, threats of violence have increased against officials, to the point where the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Biden requesting assistance in addressing them.
The Biden White House referred the letter to the Justice Department, which took the request seriously given the real and rising instances of threats against school board members. But the memo was at pains to make it clear that only a check-in was needed. As Garland explained during his testimony, "The purpose of this memorandum is to get our law enforcement to assess the extent of the problem, and if there is no problem—if states and local law enforcement are capable of handling the problem, then there is no need for our involvement in it."
Nevertheless, the GOP senators in attendance blasted the decision, claiming the Department is treating parents as domestic terrorists and is threatening prosecutions, which would have a "poisonous, chilling effect" on those expressing concerns about race-centered curriculum or mask mandates, according to Sen. Grassley. Other Republicans claimed, without irony, that the memo showed the Department was merely a political pawn of the White House.
Garland said in response:
"This memo does not say to begin prosecuting anybody. It says to make assessments. That's what we do in the Justice Department, it has nothing to do with politics."
Their impassioned rhetoric aside, these senators likely appreciate that the involvement of any authorities on the issue of rising threats might cause the most caustic and dangerous of citizens to tone it down, lest they step outside of First Amendment bounds and actually physically threaten officials and other citizens, as we have seen happen many times already.
But part of the game plan appears to be to goad residents into intimidating local officials, from school boards to election workers, so that the normal safeguards can be discarded and so that reasonable, process-oriented civil servants ultimately decide that their service is not worth the personal risk. This plan could be thwarted by Garland. Even the mere threat of a federal presence—a dreaded knock on the door by the FBI, especially if you are a conspiracy theorist, as many of the most extreme citizens are—could throw cold water on the idea of making threats. The minute the most cowardly bullies know someone with any power is watching, they become less likely to attend public meetings or make public threats.
In addition, the GOP clearly feels it needs to do everything it can now to paint the Justice Department as politically motivated, because very soon it could be issuing subpoenas and indictments of actual GOP politicians, including sitting congress members and ultimately even the former president. Seen in this light, it serves the GOP well to tarnish Garland as someone who will use the Feds to bully and intimidate poor innocent parents so that, if and when his Department begins to mete out justice for the insurrectionist organizers, they can claim that it is also politically motivated.
This is why it is critically important for the Department not to appear to be doing the political bidding of the White House on things like the Bannon criminal contempt referral and to adhere to longstanding values, processes, and practices in all matters, even ones where Democrats don't particularly like the final decision. The GOP is actively looking for any opening to undermine the legitimacy of the Department, and Garland shouldn't hand it to them. After all, if they can make this much political hay over the FBI investigating actual threats of violence against local school board members, imagine what they will do should the Department begin indicting GOP leaders.
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