An emotional Attorney General Merrick B. Garland addressed new citizens on Saturday at Ellis Island, the site of his family’s American origin story, and warned that the country had become dangerously divided by political factionalism, which has imperiled the democracy and the rule of law.
Mr. Garland was presiding over the oath of allegiance for 250 naturalized citizens at the iconic immigration processing center, on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787. As the new Americans rose to recognize their home countries — about 60 of them, with origins from Albania to Yemen — he told them that the United States “wholeheartedly welcomes you.”
During a 10-minute speech in which he repeatedly stopped to collect himself, the attorney general recounted the tale of his grandmother’s flight from antisemitism in what is now Belarus before World War II, and the narrow escape to New York made by his wife’s mother, who fled Austria after Nazis annexed the country in 1938.
“My family story is what motivated me to choose a career in public service,” said the typically stoic attorney general, his voice dropping to a husky whisper. “I wanted to repay my country for taking my family in when they had nowhere else to go. I wanted to repay the debt my family owes this country for our very lives.”
Everything Mr. Garland says these days is parsed for deeper meaning — and prosecutorial clues — as the Justice Department plunges ahead with sprawling, open-ended investigations into former President Donald J. Trump and his allies. The attorney general often uses public appearances to address Mr. Trump and Trumpism in veiled but unmistakable terms, decrying division and vowing to hold “the powerful” accountable for crimes they commit.
But Saturday’s speech came at a critical moment, as Mr. Garland commits to an inquiry into possible criminality by a former president who remains a political force, and has repeatedly attacked Mr. Garland, his department and the F.B.I.
Mr. Trump has claimed that he continues to enjoy executive privilege as a former president, despite legal precedent to the contrary, throughout his battle with the Justice Department over his retention of highly classified documents. Mr. Garland has rejected that argument, and the department in its court filings has pushed back against the idea that the former president deserves protections not afforded to other citizens who are under federal scrutiny.
“The protection of law — the rule of law — is the foundation of our system of government,” said Mr. Garland, a slight, upright figure standing under the soaring barrel vault in the immigration museum’s great hall, which served as the point of entry for millions of immigrants from 1892 to 1954.
“The rule of law means that the law treats each of us alike: There is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor,” he said, adding that the rule of law “is fragile, it demands constant effort and vigilance.” [Continue reading…]