In a hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland over his recent efforts to understand and curb the risk of violence at public school board meetings about coronavirus policies and race-based lessons.

Attempting to illustrate that the threats do not warrant Justice Department involvement, the Texas Republican referenced a letter from the National School Boards Association that listed examples. “They involve things like insults,” Cruz said. “They involve a Nazi salute — that’s one of the examples.”

Slamming his hands on dais and raising his voice, Cruz continued: “My God! A parent did a Nazi salute at a school board because he thought the policies were oppressive.”

The senator was referring to an August incident in which police removed a man from a Birmingham, Mich., school board meeting about a student mask mandate after officials said he flashed the Nazi salute and chanted “Heil Hitler.”

Cruz then asked Garland if doing a Nazi salute at an elected official was protected by the First Amendment, and Garland replied that it was.

Hours later, Cruz clarified his comments on Twitter, saying he “was defending the right of citizens to denounce authoritarian policies.” A spokesperson for Cruz did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post late Wednesday.

Cruz’s comments quickly went viral, with one clip on Twitter amassing 1.9 million views by early Thursday. The comments drew criticism from observers who said Cruz was endorsing the use of the Nazi salute, with some pointing out that he made the comments exactly three years after a man yelling antisemitic slurs killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“Just Ted Cruz defending Nazis,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tweeted.

Cruz defended his comments, saying “lefty journos” who reported on his remarks were either “dishonest” or “not very bright.”

“The parent was doing the Nazi salute because he was calling the authoritarian school board Nazis—evil, bad & abusive,” Cruz tweeted. “And yes, calling someone a Nazi is very much protected by the First Amendment.”

Cruz’s remarks came as Republicans have fiercely criticized Garland over a memo he issued on Oct. 4 that detailed the Justice Department’s intent to examine and address threats of violence against public school officials. At hearings in both the House and Senate over the past week, GOP lawmakers accused Garland of trying to squelch parents who disagree with school leaders.

Garland wrote the memo after the National School Boards Association asked President Biden in a Sept. 29 letter to take action as school meetings grew increasingly heated. The association listed instances of unruly behavior, including the Nazi salute, and likened some incidents to “a form of domestic terrorism” — a claim some Republicans seized upon to cast Garland’s directive as politically motivated. (Garland did not use the phrase in his memo, and the association later apologized for the letter.)

At Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, following a tense exchange over the directive, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also grilled Garland, ending his questioning by saying: “Thank God you are not on the Supreme Court. You should resign in disgrace, Judge.”

It was a reference to GOP senators blocking former president Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Garland to the court.

School board meetings around the country have become increasingly bitter in recent months as parents debate coronavirus policies, gender issues and lessons that deal with racism. At such meetings, parents have disrupted proceedings, threatened officials and engaged in physical fights.

A Nazi salute was flashed when the Fox Chapel School Board voted to have students wear masks in school on Aug. 9. (Fox Chapel Area School District)

Like the parent using the Nazi salute, there have been numerous instances of conservative figures invoking Nazism and the Holocaust to challenge mask and vaccine mandates. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) compared individuals leading President Biden’s vaccine push to “brown shirts,” and other politicians have worn yellow Stars of David to protest vaccine checks.

Cruz’s home state has seen several recent public displays of antisemitism. A neo-Nazi group recently traveled to Austin, wearing clothing with swastikas and hung an antisemitic sign from a freeway overpass, KSTX reported. That same week, an Austin high school with a large Jewish population was graffitied with swastikas and racial slurs.