Garland Says Watchdog Best Positioned to Review Trump-Era Justice Dept., Not Him

The attorney general said that various inspector general inquiries would help uncover any wrongdoing and that he wanted to avoid politicizing the work of career officials.,

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland backed away on Tuesday from doing a broad review of Justice Department politicization during the Trump administration, noting that the department’s independent inspector general was already investigating related issues, including aggressive leak hunts and attempts to overturn the election.

Democrats and some former Justice Department employees have pressed Mr. Garland to uncover any efforts by former President Donald J. Trump to wield the power of federal law enforcement to advance his personal agenda. Their calls for a full investigation grew louder after recent revelations that Mr. Trump pushed department officials to help him undo his election loss and that prosecutors took aggressive steps to root out leakers.

Answering questions from reporters at the Justice Department on Tuesday, Mr. Garland said that reviewing the previous administration’s actions was “a complicated question.” He noted that managers typically sought to understand what previous leaders had done.

“We always look at what happened before,” he said. But he stopped short of saying that he would undertake a comprehensive review of Trump era Justice Department officials and their actions, in part to keep career employees from concluding that their work would be judged through changing political views.

“I don’t want the department’s career people to think that a new group comes in and immediately applies a political lens,” Mr. Garland said.

He also invoked the investigations by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, noting that they spoke to the question of whether Mr. Trump had improperly used the department’s powers to investigate and prosecute.

“It’s his job to look at these things,” Mr. Garland said of Mr. Horowitz. “He’s very good at this — let us know when there are problems and what changes should be made, if they should be. I don’t want to prejudge anything. It’s just not fair to the current employees.”

Mr. Horowitz said this month that he was investigating decisions by federal prosecutors to secretly seize reporters’ phone records in investigations of leaks of classified information to the press early in the Trump administration.

Mr. Horowitz is also examining subpoenas to Apple for subscriber information that ultimately belonged to House Democrats, including Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Mr. Schiff had called on Mr. Garland last week to do a “top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps.”

The inspector general is also examining whether current or former Justice Department officials improperly attempted to use the department to undo the election results, following reports that at least one former official pushed leaders to do so. And he is looking into whether Trump administration officials improperly pressured the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, to resign over his decision not to take actions that would cast doubt on the results of the election.

Mr. Garland also said in a statement this month that the deputy attorney general, Lisa O. Monaco, was looking for “potentially problematic matters deserving high-level review.” But he made clear that she was not undertaking the kind of full investigation that critics of the Trump administration have called for.

Mr. Garland also told reporters that he planned to issue a memo on the federal death penalty in the coming weeks, which the Trump administration had revived after nearly two decades of disuse. President Biden has said he opposes the federal death penalty.

“I have been personally reviewing the processes of the department,” Mr. Garland said. “I expect before too long to have a statement.”

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