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New Justice Department Team Comes Into Focus Ahead Of Vote On Garland

The new team President Biden has picked to run the Justice Department will come into focus this week, as Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland awaits a confirmation vote and two more presumptive leaders prepare to face questioning in the Senate.

Lisa Monaco, a national security expert, and Vanita Gupta, a longtime civil rights advocate, will appear before the Judiciary Committee Tuesday in their bids to serve as deputy attorney general and associate attorney general, the department's second and third in command.

Monaco, 53, is one of the most credentialed nominees for the post of deputy AG in recent history. She's prosecuted violent crime and white-collar offenses; worked as a top aide inside the FBI; led the Justice Department's national security division; and served as homeland security adviser in the Obama White House.

Her natural inclination to avoid the spotlight may have obscured Monaco's deep preparation for the job, according to friends and colleagues.

"Lisa has more experience in handling domestic and international terrorism threats and cyber attacks than any person ever to helm the Department," said former prosecutor and FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann. "Combined with her commitment to the rule of law, rigor, and public service, Lisa is the perfect nominee for our times."

Monaco appears to recognize the delicate nature of the deputy job, which involves managing day-to-day operations at the sprawling department and refereeing disputes among U.S. attorneys, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other components.

In her only public remarks to date since her nomination, she pledged to respect career prosecutors and agents and to operate outside the lines of partisan politics.

"What is most critical I think in the days ahead is not actually a challenge at all, but an opportunity," Monaco said. "For this team and for the career professionals who make up the Justice Department to reaffirm its norms and traditions, to do justice without fear or favor, to keep the American people safe and to do so always consistent with the rule of law."

A bipartisan group of former attorneys general is supporting Monaco's nomination, as is her onetime boss at the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III. Four former FBI deputy directors also wrote the Judiciary Committee to attest to her "keen intellect, sound and unbiased judgement and outstanding leadership."

Defense lawyer Barry Pollack, who squared off against Monaco in a case involving executives at the disgraced energy company Enron, also offered praise for his former courthouse adversary: "As Deputy Attorney General, I am confident that every decision that comes across her desk will be made based not on political considerations, but rather on what her considerable experience tells her is in the best interest of the Department of Justice. "

Vanita Gupta, nominee for associate attorney general, is pictured in June 2020 at a hearing on police use of force.
/ Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP
Vanita Gupta, nominee for associate attorney general, is pictured in June 2020 at a hearing on police use of force.

Ironically, even though most of the Justice Department's most sensitive national security and public corruption investigations will likely land on her doorstep, Monaco could be overshadowed at the hearing by possible controversy over her fellow nominee, presumptive Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

Gupta, 46, has been targeted by five Republican state attorneys general and a nearly $1 million negative advertising campaign launched by a group that promotes conservative causes. The criticism centers on Gupta's previous tenure at the Justice Department, when she oversaw investigations of police departments after white officers shot and killed Black citizens, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo recently blasted the attempt at what he called "character assassination" of Gupta by conservative activists.

"Guess what?" Acevedo said. "There is unanimous support from all the major law enforcement groups in this country," including the country's largest law enforcement union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which said she had a record as a consensus-builder.

If she is confirmed as associate AG, Gupta would supervise the civil rights division, as well as the environment, antitrust and civil divisions at the Justice Department.

The man in line to lead the department, Merrick Garland, is expected to sail to confirmation as early as Wednesday after a short delay engineered by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who said he was unhappy Garland, a sitting federal judge, had not answered several of his questions.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.