Congressional Republicans have settled on a new political enemy. His name is Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Last week, GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee lashed out at Garland for trying to prevent violence directed at educators, and as The New York Times reported, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did the same thing yesterday.
Republicans berated Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Wednesday over the Justice Department's initiative to address threats of violence and harassment directed at school administrators, teachers and school board members, incidents that have increased as education has become a culture war battleground.
Practically every GOP senator on the panel — Iowa's Chuck Grassley, North Carolina's Thom Tillis, Nebraska's Ben Sasse, et al. — went after the attorney general as if he were a pinata. Missouri's Josh Hawley and Arkansas' Tom Cotton went even further, calling on Garland to "resign in disgrace."
In the not-too-distant past, it would've been an important political development for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to call on a sitting attorney general to resign. But with the routinization of performative tantrums, now it's just a typical Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
The most obvious problem with the GOP's hysterics is that this is a silly, made-up controversy.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, one might think, given the partisan pushback, that the attorney general had sent FBI agents to unsuspecting homes to harass parents for asking harmless questions at school board meetings.
That's not what happened. Confronted with real-world evidence of educators being targeted as part of an intimidation campaign, the attorney general recently wrote a memo explaining that the Justice Department intends to prevent threats and potential violence.
"In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools," Garland wrote in a memorandum. "While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.
"Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety."
Republicans expect the public to find this scandalous. It's not.
In fact, common sense suggests that the GOP officials lashing out at Garland realize there's no real controversy here. They're not illiterate. They've had an opportunity to read the attorney general's relatively brief memo and look for imagined evidence of Justice Department overreach.
So why engage in furious theatrics? In part because these Republicans appear eager to keep the GOP scared, engaged, and agitated with exaggerated claims that have already been discredited. The chances of Hawley and Cotton turning yesterday's drama into a fundraising appeal are probably around 100 percent.
My larger concern is that the intensity of the Republican pushback will have a chilling effect. How many officials at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security might start hesitating in response to legitimate threats against local school boards because they're afraid GOP lawmakers and governors will get hysterical again?
In early 2009, the Department of Homeland Security prepared a document alerting law enforcement to potential threats from ideological extremists and their interest in politically motivated violence. The report had been commissioned by the Bush/Cheney administration, but congressional Republicans and conservative media freaked out anyway, suggesting that the Obama administration was preparing to target political opponents on the right. Some GOP members of Congress even called for then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation.
As bizarre as the Republican tantrum was, federal officials responded by scaling back their scrutiny, at least for a while, of home-grown extremists and potentially violent fringe radicals. The chilling effect was obvious: The Department of Homeland Security simply didn't want to have to deal with the GOP's misguided fury.
More than a decade later, here's hoping the Justice Department is able to focus on public safety, regardless of the partisan pushback.