Attorney General Merrick Garland has spent much of his first year in office delicately reinstating pre-Trump era traditions to rebuild the Justice Department’s independence and career lawyers’ morale.
Garland has largely stayed out of the public spotlight, rarely discussing the department’s investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection and other fallout from Donald Trump’s presidency.
Restraint and what one former senior DOJ official described as a detached management style come naturally to Garland, who spent the previous 24 years cloistered half a mile up Pennsylvania Avenue as a federal appeals court judge.
Garland’s even-keeled focus on upholding norms—without overtly discussing the conditions he inherited—has some civil servants feeling relieved they can enforce the law free of political distraction, according to interviews with dozens of current and former department employees.
“They’re professionals, no matter who is in office, and they do their job professionally and deserve respect for that,” said James Cole, who was deputy attorney general from 2011-2015. “Merrick is helping in that regard by saying, ‘we’re not a political organization, and I’m going to back you up in upholding rule of law.’”
Other DOJ lawyers past and present said they worry he’s not done enough to forcefully address institutional damage caused by his predecessors.
Garland’s one-year anniversary in the job on Friday coincides with the release of a book by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, who has disputed criticisms that he broke norms and disrespected staff.
“I would not allow the department to be bullied by line prosecutors,” Barr writes, defending his decision to overrule career lawyers’ recommendation for what he deemed an excessive sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone.
Garland’s efforts to address department morale and independence started with his choice to be sworn in at Justice Department headquarters, rather than the White House, where Trump’s picks Jeff Sessions and Barr had their ceremonies.
Garland scooped ice cream for DOJ employees over the summer and served apple cider and donuts in the fall. He’s focused some of his outreach on parts of the Justice Department that felt particularly beleaguered during the Trump administration.
In October, he stopped by a happy hour in the Justice Department courtyard with Antitrust Division attorneys to commend them on a string of price-fixing and criminal prosecutions. The Antitrust Division ranked as the 400th best place to work out of 411 executive branch subagencies in an analysis of a 2020 federal employee survey.
On Friday he’ll appear at an “informal employee appreciation event” in the courtyard and a fireside chat with Civil Division leaders, a DOJ official said.
He sent a more substantive message to staff in July by releasing a memo that set strict limits on when White House personnel can communicate with DOJ staff. The policy came after President Trump had publicly pressured prosecutors to go after his enemies and accusations of Barr interfering with DOJ affairs to support the president’s agenda.
Garland, hired at DOJ in 1989 as a career prosecutor, has assembled a team of officials—including Todd Kim at the Environment and Natural Resource Division and Kristen Clarke at the Civil Rights Division—who launched their legal careers as entry-level line attorneys in the agencies they now direct.
Kim has told career attorneys that they’ll once again be presenting oral arguments in court after the agency’s Trump-era chief sidelined them in favor of political appointees, said former ENRD official Tom Lorenzen.
Having Kim, a former ENRD career attorney, as the politically-appointed head “is itself a morale builder, because that is someone who came in knowing how the division works,” said Lorenzen. “Some of that direction definitely comes from Attorney General Garland.”
Elsewhere, lawyers at the Civil Division’s federal programs branch are less concerned their cases defending agency regulations will be undercut by officials’ public statements, said Tamra Moore, who left the branch in 2019.
This year, Garland is preparing to up his public engagements, following a more isolated inaugural year. He’ll visit U.S. attorney’s offices and travel next week to meet with local law enforcement and community leaders in Georgia and Louisiana, the DOJ official said.
On Thursday, Garland made brief public remarks, appearing alongside his component heads gathered for a closed-door meeting. The display marked a departure from his practice through late 2021 of only meeting with a narrower leadership team, according to a former senior DOJ official under Garland.
Meetings last year, which didn’t touch on substantive matters, involved a far tighter circle than those hosted by prior attorneys generals in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share internal details. This “insular” style and narrowed pool of advisers impaired Garland’s decisions, the official said.
Day-to-day operations still fall outside an attorney general’s purview in any administration. His deputy Lisa Monaco, DOJ’s No. 2 official, and the Justice Management Division are chiefly responsible for employee relations.
Garland appears to be more of a “delegator” than prior AGs, “letting senior leaders deal with the workforce, probably as intended,” said Adam Hanna, vice president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, an advocacy group funded by voluntary dues from DOJ line attorney members.
As in any workforce of 115,000, DOJ employee perspectives on their boss vary.
Some prosecutors, including those in the Criminal Division investigating white-collar crime, say they are usually insulated from political meddling, including during the Trump administration. Former division lawyers, including some who worked at DOJ under Garland, say he’s had minimal effect on their daily work life.
Garland could bolster the division’s morale by carrying out his pledge to devote more resources to support corporate crime investigations, former attorneys say. That’s an outcome that will ultimately hinge on Congress.
Hiring sprees to replace attrition across the department have already led to improved job satisfaction at the Antitrust Division, current and former employees say. But the institutional knowledge lost throughout DOJ as multiple senior career officials fled during the Trump administration “is probably the biggest challenge the department is going to have,” Cole said.
The vast majority of DOJ employees will never be involved in the department’s ongoing work prosecuting the Capitol insurrectionists, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, and—potentially—the former president himself.
Still, to some, their sense of mission is shaped by Garland’s actions on that front. For instance, some current and former career attorneys said they were heartened by his January speech directed at DOJ staff in which Garland said he’s “committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law.”
One of those current lawyers, however, expressed fear that Garland’s “old-school DOJ” nature may not be ideal for the hyper-partisan times. The current attorney said that while the culture is back to normal for now, not enough is being done to look back and learn on past transgressions, which could expose them to peril if Trump were to be elected again in 2024.
Garland’s earned respect for his reticence. Still, some past and present DOJ lawyers are calling on Garland to do more to fend off future threats, such as by offering DOJ lawyers training on how to react when faced with inappropriate political interference in their cases.
Garland is contending not only with internal and external pressure to bring charges against Trump, but also accusations from conservatives of politicizing the department by treating conservative parents as domestic terrorists.
After achieving incremental progress in year one, Garland’s impact on employee morale may be defined by how he maintains a path of building up DOJ’s credibility and integrity, department veterans say. That’s a promise he made exactly a year ago in a speech to staff after being sworn into office. Invoking the first post-Watergate attorney general, Edward Levi, Garland emphasized adhering to norms and respecting employee dedication and impartiality.
“That’s not something you can snap your fingers and do by issuing a memo or implementing a policy,” said Jonathan Kravis, the former DOJ prosecutor of Roger Stone who resigned in 2020 in protest over senior officials intervening to recommend a reduced sentence.
“It requires a day-to-day commitment over a period of time,” added Kravis. “I think Attorney General Garland is doing that.”