WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland sidestepped questions from Democrats in Congress on Thursday about whether the Justice Department would back their latest efforts in the investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. He also batted away criticism from Republicans that he had politicized the department’s response to threats of violence stemming from the debate over how racial issues are taught in schools.
In his first oversight hearing as attorney general, Mr. Garland told the House Judiciary Committee that the special counsel appointed by the Trump administration to scrutinize the Russia investigation, John H. Durham, had his budget approved for another year, indicating that his work was ongoing. And Mr. Garland confirmed that the department’s tax-related investigation of President Biden’s son Hunter Biden was continuing.
He declined to provide any details, citing department regulations against speaking about cases while they are still open.
Mr. Garland used his opening statement to walk lawmakers through the work done over the past several months to address what he considers the department’s top priorities: upholding the rule of law, keeping the country safe and protecting civil rights.
Democrats and Republicans largely ignored his overview and focused instead on issues that could resonate in next year’s midterm elections, including investigations into actions of former President Donald J. Trump and the role of race and other contentious topics in school curriculums.
Mr. Garland was confronted by Republicans about his position that the Justice Department would respond to violence and threats of violence directed at school board members who have come under fire amid the national debate over school curriculum.
Republicans roundly attacked him over a memo that he issued this month that said the department would respond to the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff” in public schools by prosecuting those crimes when appropriate.
Some Republican lawmakers noted that Mr. Garland issued the memo soon after public school leaders asked Mr. Biden to address safety issues that had arisen amid the fight over how to teach students about racial inequality and injustice, suggesting that the timing of the memo seemed to have been directed by the White House.
Mr. Garland said he had not issued the memo at the behest of Mr. Biden.
Other Republicans said the memo had the effect of intimidating parents who expressed concerns about schools and asked whether Mr. Garland intended to deploy the F.B.I. to school board meetings.
“I have no intention of policing school board meetings,” Mr. Garland said. He said that the F.B.I. would not police schools or intimidate parents, and he noted that the memo did not authorize such actions.
Teaching about race and racism has emerged as an issue that has energized social conservatives, as have matters such as how schools recognize gender and pandemic-era health and safety policies.
While Democrats asked questions on gun control, inhumane prison conditions, hate crimes against Asian Americans and voting rights, many of them focused on the Justice Department’s willingness to enforce subpoenas issued by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Mr. Garland was questioned hours before the House voted to hold Stephen K. Bannon in contempt for refusing to comply with the select committee’s subpoena. Mr. Bannon, who stepped down as a top White House adviser in 2017 but continued to counsel Mr. Trump, has declined to provide documents or testimony to the committee, citing executive privilege.
The next step in the conflict is for the U.S. attorney in Washington to decide whether to enforce the subpoena.
Mr. Garland declined to say whether the Justice Department would enforce the subpoena against Mr. Bannon or to give his view on how and when the department enforces congressional subpoenas.
“The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances,” Mr. Garland said. “We’ll apply the facts and the law and make a decision, consistent with the principles of prosecution.”
The Justice Department’s enforcement decision will have broad implications for the principle of executive privilege, as the courts have not definitively ruled on whether a president’s conversations with private citizens can be protected under such a privilege claim. And it will have pragmatic implications for the select committee, since the outcome for Mr. Bannon could influence other witnesses who have not yet complied with the panel’s subpoenas.
There are at least two Justice Department opinions that generally bar prosecutors from enforcing such subpoenas against executive branch officials when a president has invoked privilege.