For a few seconds during a marathon hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, one of the most drama-averse and self-controlled figures in official Washington, lost it.
The fuse was lit midway through the session by Representative Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Democrat-turned-Republican in a purple necktie, who suggested that the F.B.I. was engaged in an anti-Catholic campaign.
Mr. Garland, who is Jewish and had choked up during his opening statement in recounting his family’s flight from antisemitism in Europe before the Holocaust, shouted: “The idea that someone with my family background would discriminate against any religion is so outrageous — so absurd!”
The moment reflected his growing frustration with relentless attacks on his department from the right. And while some of the questions hurled at him Wednesday were an attempt to pry free information, many were overtly partisan or based on distortion, insinuation and misinformation.
Wednesday’s hearing was a harbinger, not only of Mr. Garland’s more aggressive public posture, but of the central role occupied by the Justice Department in the coming impeachment inquiry, and in the 2024 presidential campaign that looms beyond.
Here are five takeaways:
Republicans claimed the ‘fix was in.’ They offered no new evidence.
Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who leads the committee, repeatedly suggested that Mr. Garland had slow-walked the investigation into the president’s son, Hunter Biden, with an aim toward minimizing the political damage to his boss.
“The fix is in,” Jordan said. “Even with the face-saving indictment last week of Hunter Biden, everyone knows the fix is in.”
But neither Mr. Jordan nor the handful of other pro-Trump Republicans who made the same point, provided concrete proof for their claim — or elicited responses from the attorney general that backed up those conclusions.
Garland did not explain why David Weiss asked to be named special counsel.
Republicans tried, and failed, to get Mr. Garland to explain why Mr. Weiss suddenly requested to be appointed special counsel in August. Weeks earlier, a plea deal that would have granted Hunter Biden broad immunity from future prosecution on weapons and tax charges had fallen apart under the withering scrutiny of a federal judge in Delaware.
Mr. Garland told a Senate committee earlier this year that Mr. Weiss had all the authority he required as U.S. attorney in Delaware to pursue any lead in the case, and had as much power to bring cases in other jurisdictions as a special counsel.
“Well, what changed then, Mr. Attorney General? What made you decide that it was sufficient to leave him in the situation he was until you decided to make him special counsel?” asked Representative Dan Bishop, Republican of North Carolina, referring to Mr. Garland’s interaction with Mr. Weiss.
In response, Mr. Garland cited a promise he had made to senators during his confirmation in 2021 that he would not interfere with Mr. Weiss’s work, which included their private exchanges.
But he did not explain why Mr. Weiss asked for a change in status Mr. Garland had previously suggested was unnecessary.
The Republicans are not done with Garland.
Wednesday’s bare-knuckled hearing provided a preview of the tactics Republicans will use during the impeachment inquiry into President Biden scheduled to begin next week.
But there were unmistakable signals that they might step up their attacks on Mr. Garland, either by impeaching him separately or accusing him of other violations, including contempt of Congress.
Senior department officials have been girding for just such a possibility, and believe that the committee’s refusal to allow a Justice Department lawyer into a witness interview with an F.B.I. agent was a sign that they are preparing to accuse the department of stonewalling their investigations.
Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, went even farther on Wednesday, demanding that Mr. Garland share what knowledge, if any, he had of undercover F.B.I. agents or government assets who were present in the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Mr. Garland replied.
Mr. Massie accused him of perjury.
… But not all of them are on board.
At least one Republican — Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus — did not pile on.
A former federal prosecutor who has emerged as a leading Republican critic of the push to impeach President Biden without proof of corruption, Mr. Buck listed several examples in Mr. Garland’s career that demonstrated his independence and integrity. He suggested that no decision Mr. Garland made in the Hunter Biden investigation would satisfy his critics.
“You would have been criticized either way,” Mr. Buck told the attorney general.
Mr. Garland plans to be more aggressive. To a point.
Mr. Garland spent more than 40 years trying to transcend partisan combat in the apolitical pursuit of prosecutorial and judicial independence. But over the past seven years, he has found himself embroiled in a succession of bruising political controversies — first as a Supreme Court nominee whose candidacy was blocked by Republicans in 2016, and then as an attorney general whose tenure will likely be defined by a transgressive former president.
Mr. Garland adopted a less confrontational approach during his previous encounters with congressional Republicans. But Trump-led efforts to discredit federal law enforcement are taking their toll, undercutting public confidence in hs department and escalating threats to investigators.
Mr. Garland prepared intensively for Wednesday’s hearings, according to people familiar with the matter. He seemed to seek a middle course — to push back without pushing too hard.
And while Mr. Garland seemed more raw than previous appearances during his tenure, what he did not say was just as important as what he said.
Over and over, he refused to comment on a range of Republican questions — on his relationship with Mr. Weiss, details of Jack Smith’s decision to twice indict Mr. Trump, his response to news of Justice Clarence Thomas’s acceptance of gifts from wealthy conservative donors.
“I always held myself to the highest standards of ethical responsibility imposed by the code,” he replied.
Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.