Republicans question Merrick Garland on Portland protests during confirmation hearing

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2021 9:58 p.m.

Amidst numerous questions on domestic extremism and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, attorney general nominee Merrick Garland was asked by Republican Senators on Monday about protests in Portland and if “assaults on federal property” constituted domestic terrorism.

“Let me ask you about assaults on federal property in places other than Washington, D.C. Portland, for instance,” Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said. “Do you regard assaults on federal courthouses or other federal properties as acts of domestic extremism, domestic terrorism?”


Garland said his personal view on the matter lined up with the statutory definition of terrorism.

“My own definition, which is about the same as the statutory definition, is the use of violence or threats of violence in an attempt to disrupt democratic processes,” Garland replied. “So an attack on a courthouse while in operation, trying to prevent judges from actually deciding cases, that plainly is domestic extremism, domestic terrorism.”

Protesters demonstrate against racism and police violence in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse on July 12, 2020. Earlier in the night, federal law enforcement officers shot a demonstrator in the head with a less lethal impact munition, causing severe injury.

Protesters demonstrate against racism and police violence in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland on July 12, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

But Garland drew a distinction between an attack on a government property at night and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Both are criminal but one is a core attack on our democratic institutions,” Garland added.

Garland is a federal appeals court judge who was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court by former President Barack Obama in 2016. In a radical departure from decades of precedent, the Republican controlled Senate refused to consider his nomination, citing the presidential election which was nearly nine months away at the time.


Garland appeared Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he vowed to prioritize combating extremist violence and depoliticizing the Justice Department. He said his first focus, if confirmed as attorney general, would be the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In his prepared remarks, Garland focused on prioritizing policing and civil rights to combat racial discrimination — he said America doesn’t “yet have equal justice” — as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats.

“Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” Garland said.

Garland is an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

Soon after Sen. Hawley finished questioning Garland, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham again returned the focus to Portland.

“Do you promise to defend the Portland courthouse against anarchists?” Graham asked.

Garland repeated that attacking or damaging a federal building is a crime and anyone who does so will be prosecuted.

Billy Williams, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, took an aggressive role during this summer’s racial justice protests in Portland. While many charges have since been dropped, the DOJ has dozens of cases still open stemming from last summer’s protests. Williams, a Trump appointee who also served under Obama, is stepping down effective Feb. 28. Biden’s nominee to replace Williams has not yet been named.

Garland is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.