Merrick Garland still in the hot seat in biggest investigation in FBI history

By Evan Perez and Katelyn Polantz, CNN

One year after the insurrection of January 6, The Justice Department continues to advance the largest investigation in FBI history, with 700 people already arrested and hundreds of other offenders still at large and several years of prosecution ahead.

But the broad investigation has yet to shed light on how vigorously the former president and his political allies may be investigated for inciting rioters by spreading a lie that the election was stolen. and asking them to go to the Capitol.

After opening aggressively, with prosecutors raising the possibility of using a rarely-used seditious conspiracy law to indict certain attackers on Capitol Hill, the Justice Department since Attorney General Merrick Garland took office in March 2021 s’ is installed in a less salient approach that justice officials say is intended to move the investigation away from the political maelstrom.

Garland, a former appeals court judge, has made restoring institutional standards one of the main goals of his tenure, after a Trump era that regularly injected politics into the department. This includes a reminder to prosecutors that they should only speak in indictments and other court proceedings.

His low-key approach has not satisfied anti-Trump Democrats and Republicans who are openly discussing their interest in identifying crimes they think the Justice Department should prosecute. It also opened up criticism to Garland that he hasn’t been as vigorous or aggressive publicly as the nation needs to counter a threat to democracy.

“I think Merrick Garland has been extremely weak and I think there should be a lot more Jan 6 organizers who should be arrested now,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, told CNN. this week.

Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley defended the agency’s efforts. “We are proud of the men and women of the Department of Justice, who are undertaking the largest investigation in the history of the department,” Coley said in a statement. “They are following the facts, the law and the Constitution while working at an impressive speed and scale to hold accountable all those responsible for the attack on Capitol Hill, and will continue to do so.”

For the FBI, which has been criticized for failing to do more to prevent the attack, the Jan. 6 anniversary is also a time to urge the public to help with more advice in solving notable unsolved crimes, including police assaults and homemade bombs found that day near the offices of the Democratic and Republican parties a few steps from the Capitol.

Steven D’Antuono, deputy director of the FBI’s Washington field office, said those investigations were priorities as part of the larger, complex investigation.

“In this area where the bombs were placed, if they exploded they could have caused serious damage or death,” D’Antuono said in an interview with CNN.

“That day, over 100 police officers were repeatedly assaulted,” D’Antuono said. “And we’re not just talking about one assault, multiple assaults and multiple people. We’re still looking for about 250 people who assaulted the police that day.

The FBI hired a contractor to help it process hundreds of thousands of hours of video to do the painstaking work of identifying the attackers. “We’re going to be at this for as long as it takes,” he said.

Responsibility beyond the rioters

The Jan. 6 attack reframed the face of a national terrorist threat that the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies say has grown rapidly. And the Jan. 6 investigation has led to several arrests of what appear to be far-right political extremists, and extensive investigations into militarized organizations that have affiliated with Trump and whose members participated in the violence on Capitol Hill. .

But in many ways, the role of the former president, whose rhetoric has fueled crowds and continues to liven up supporters, is the elephant in the room that Justice Department officials try not to talk about.

In one of the first moves under Garland, the Justice Department turned over thousands of pages of internal documents to congressional committees investigating the attack on Capitol Hill.

The move, which deviated from the previous one, was intended to provide lawmakers with information they could use more quickly to expose the behavior of those in the old administration who inspired the attack. This includes former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, who, according to testimony from former Trump officials, sought to stage a departmental coup before January 6 and wanted to use the department to support them. Trump’s false allegations of electoral fraud.

The tacit recognition of the move, however, was an indication that the former president and senior officials were unlikely to face criminal prosecution for actions that instigated the attack.

Some justice officials say providing the documents to Congress will help provide Americans with answers the Justice Department may never present, as the Department can only provide an account of events when it lays charges .

Justice officials note that prosecutors typically have a five-year statute of limitations for most crimes committed on January 6 and have not ruled out the possibility of targeting high-profile figures.

While releasing a wealth of documents in Congress was intended to alleviate pressure on the department, it has in some ways done the opposite. Members of the House select committee investigating the attack have highlighted the information they have uncovered so far in order to create constant pressure on the department to ensure there is accountability to- beyond the hundreds of people who entered the Capitol illegally.

Biggest investigation in FBI history quick start

The investigation began with an explosion of activity, with 70 people charged in the first week and around 100 cases opened, prosecutors said at a briefing. The swiftness was driven in part by fears that a repeat of violence could disrupt President Joe Biden’s inauguration weeks later.

“No US attorney’s office has indicted so many cases, executed so many subpoenas and search warrants in such a short period of time,” said Michael Sherwin, former acting district attorney for the US District of Columbia who helped oversee the investigation, in an interview. “Speed ​​was critical. We had the Inauguration coming up. We had to instill in the public a sense of order and the rule of law, to mitigate the damage that occurred that day. “

But those early Sherwin and D’Antuono press conferences, which together presented a New York-style harsh voice to law enforcement work, quickly gave way to Garland who ushered in a more understated style. Sherwin left the Justice Department after being reprimanded for failing to obtain permission to do an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes, in which he said, among other things, that he believed the Department could indict a seditious plot.

The crime scene on Capitol Hill was unusual and unprecedented in size, in many ways due to the way surveillance and police cameras captured dozens of angles of the Capitol attack, and because online bragging messages from riot participants gave prosecutors several terabytes of evidence. .

Early on, the FBI opened its whistleblower lines and posted photos of prominent attackers, immediately triggering a flood of denunciations from average citizens in the form of family, friends and strangers. . A loose group of online detectives, dubbed Sedition Hunters, have organized themselves to take down released footage to help identify dozens of suspected rioters. Their work, which has at times been faster than that of the FBI, has been praised by prosecutors who have credited their work in the criminal indictment documents.

Laborious pace of the riot court

Garland’s approach to the Jan. 6 inquiry appears to mimic the laborious pace of the court – which may seem reasonable to the longtime federal judge, but which largely precludes the general public from attending much of the trial. ‘investigation outside of court proceedings and documents. So far, more than 160 federal defendants have pleaded guilty, all but 20 so far pleading guilty to petty offenses – leaving the bulk of felony cases in court in 2022.

About 70 defendants were sentenced, either to probation or to stays in house arrest or in prison. Many felony defendants potentially consider years in prison if found guilty.

The first criminal trials on January 6 are scheduled to begin in February. During these multi-day proceedings, prosecutors will need to provide more visibility into the extent of the communications data, videos and other evidence they collected in what has become the largest federal investigation in history. American.

Sometimes the lawsuits have already connected January 6 investigators to the phone logs of members of Congress and a vast network of MAGA celebrities, such as Roger Stone and Sidney Powell, in contact with people around Trump’s White House until ‘to January 6. .

But the Justice Department tightening the screws on Trump’s closest contacts may be far away, if he is prosecuted. Prosecutors will not stand trial for months on major conspiracy indictments against alleged right-wing Proud Boys leaders who stormed the Capitol through a window and participants in a group of Oath Keepers. In the latter case, with 17 defendants awaiting trial, some are accused of laying down arms outside town on January 6, others say they were acting as security for VIPs, and d Other defendants zoomed in a golf cart to Capitol Hill while coordinating their group during the attack, prosecutors said.

So far, four Oath Keepers defendants have pleaded guilty and appear to be cooperating with prosecutors. And while lawyers for the Proud Boys have whispered for months about witness cooperation and how prosecutors pressured some of them to cooperate, the first known Proud Boys member to be charged The plot didn’t change until the last few weeks of 2021.

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