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Merrick Garland is showing us how an attorney general is supposed to act

For the Justice Department, doing an investigation right means doing it quietly.
Photo diptych: Merrick Garland and Donald Trump
Many Americans have been pushing Attorney General Merrick Garland to give a signal that the Justice Department is investigating former President Donald Trump.MSNBC / Getty Images

For many, Tuesday night was an evening of contrasts. There was a calm, measured attorney general assuring the public that the Department of Justice will hold accountable anyone found criminally responsible for the events of Jan. 6, 2021, or for attempting to overturn the 2020 election. When NBC News’ Lester Holt asked Merrick Garland whether that approach might even apply to former President Donald Trump – even if Trump were to announce he’s running for president again – Garland repeated the refrain that no one is above the law.

Garland remained expressionless while never showing his hand, the consummate poker player.

Garland, likely aware that his every word and movement would be scrutinized for clues, remained expressionless while never showing his hand, the consummate poker player. Later that same night, The Washington Post reported, to much fanfare, that it has seen some of the cards Garland is holding and it sure looks like the Department of Justice is investigating Trump.

While Tuesday night may have been confounding to some, for me, it was an example of how things are supposed to work. Prosecutors and media outlets play different roles and move at different speeds as both seek to ferret out the truth.

It’s been so long since we had a by-the-book attorney general that many Americans still don’t quite understand if they’re supposed to be encouraged or disappointed by what they heard from Garland Tuesday evening. Since Trump left office, many have demanded swift justice for the man they hold responsible for assaulting our democracy. The pressure on Garland to move faster, say something, arrest somebody, anybody, close to Trump intensified when some members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol began expressing their own frustration with him. But Garland wasn’t going to cave to public pressure. That’s not how a healthy Justice Department is supposed to do things. The department is supposed to follow the facts and the law – not the op-ed pages.

The many people demanding immediate action from Garland can be forgiven if they’ve forgotten how justice and the rule of law are supposed to be executed. After all, those people saw one of Trump’s attorneys general, William Barr, shamelessly jump in front of the release of the Mueller Special Counsel Report with his own press conference that included a fabrication-filled four-page summary. They saw that same attorney general appoint special counsel John Durham to try to destroy the original investigation into Russian interference with Trump’s campaign — even after the DOJ’s own inspector general determined the case was properly predicated. And, they saw that same lackey attorney general mislead the public about the perceived perils of mail-in balloting.

Now, we have a Justice Department that’s back to methodically focusing on facts. We have an attorney general who won’t call a press conference to tell us his opinion about investigative findings — or even to tell us that an investigation exists. That may be frustrating for some people, especially those who believed that if there were an investigation, that we would have already seen leaks indicating an investigation. That’s OK. That’s how the Justice Department is supposed to work – it’s not supposed to leak.

People demanding immediate action from Garland can be forgiven if they’ve forgotten how justice and the rule of law are supposed to be executed.

Garland’s careful approach contrasted with the crashing wave of reporting that soon drowned out his quiet comments. The reporting began Tuesday night with The Washington Post’s news that the DOJ had called at least two high-ranking aides to Vice President Mike Pence into a grand jury and questioned them for hours about Trump’s actions related to the alternate electors scheme. That report was quickly followed by reporting from NBC News that essentially corroborated the DOJ’s interest in Trump. The New York Times weighed in with further confirmation. The far-right, including an editor at large at Breitbart News, immediately cried “foul” about The Washington Post’s scoop and claimed that someone at Justice must be leaking. Yet, that report made no mention of DOJ sources. To me it sounded much more like the information came from either the grand jury witnesses or people close to them.

The media doing its job — pursuing the facts and sometimes loudly reporting the news with breaking news banners — is just as essential as the Justice Department quietly and methodically doing its job. This may seem like a confounding contrast, even a conflict. But that’s how things are supposed to be. It’s all part of a healthy democracy.

Garland previously responded to questions about the perception that the Justice Department is moving too slowly in its investigation of Jan. 6 by saying, “We have to get this right.” So far, he is.