Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the US Justice Department said Monday that fighting domestic extremism would be his 'first priority' if confirmed as attorney general.
Appeals court judge Merrick Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee that far-right extremism today was worse than when he investigated the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that left 168 dead.
He said there was a direct line between that attack and the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by extremist supporters of former president Donald Trump.
"This was the most heinous attack on the democratic process that I have seen, and one that I never expected to see in my lifetime," Garland told the panel, which is vetting his nomination, adding that he did not think it was "necessarily a one-off."
"We are facing a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City at that time," he continued.
"I can assure you that this will be my first priority, and my first briefing," he told the committee.
The hearing comes just weeks after Trump went on trial in the Senate -- and was acquitted -- on impeachment charges of fomenting the January 6 attack.
Garland was asked if he would investigate the "ringleaders" and "aiders and abetters" behind the attack.
"We will pursue these leads wherever they take us," he said, without any mention of the former president.
Garland, a respected, moderately liberal judge of nearly 24 years and before that a senior Justice Department official, also pledged to keep the department free of politics after alleged repeated interference by Trump.
He also said an "urgent" task of the department was to ensure equal justice for minorities and people of color, in an apparent reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Minorities still face discrimination in housing, education and the jobs market, and disproportionately suffer the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, Garland told the panel.
"The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the department's Civil Rights Division, with the mission 'to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society,'" Garland said.
"That mission remains urgent because we do not yet have equal justice."
Doubts over capital punishment
Garland also appeared to have reservations about capital punishment, after Trump's attorney general Bill Barr last year ended a 17-year moratorium on executions of federal prisoners and had 13 put to death in the final months of the administration.
While Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, was executed, Garland said that over recent years the unbalanced application of the death sentence on Black Americans, and the number people being exonerated after being sentenced to prison or death, "give me pause" about capital punishment.
He said that resuming the freeze on federal executions was up to Biden, and noted that the president had expressed opposition to the death penalty.
In an emotional moment, Garland faltered and nearly broke down when asked what in his past defined his approach to justice.
He said his grandparents had escaped from anti-Jewish persecution in Russia and fled to the United States.
"The country took us in and protected us. And I felt the obligation to the country to pay back, (with) the highest best set of my own skills, to pay back."
Garland was nominated in 2016 by then-president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court.
But in a gambit to allow Obama's successor, Trump, to instead pick a conservative for the vacant slot, Republicans stalled on his nomination for eight months, effectively killing it.
On Monday Republicans on the committee appeared welcoming to Garland, suggesting that he would gain easy approval.
"I like you, I respect you, and I think you're a good pick for this job," said Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee.
His confirmation hearing was to continue on Tuesday, and a committee vote is likely within a week, before the nomination goes to the full Senate for approval.