It is no secret that the Justice Department has prosecuted hundreds of rioters who participated in the insurrectionist riot on Jan. 6. It is also no secret that there have been no related charges brought against those who organized the anti-election events a year ago today, those who pleaded with radicalized activists to come to the capital, or those who tried to execute the plot to overturn the election results Republicans didn't like.
The latter point has become a point of increasing frustration in some Democratic circles.
Rep. Ruben Gallego complained this week, for example, "I think [Attorney General] Merrick Garland has been extremely weak, and I think there should be a lot more of the organizers of Jan. 6 that should be arrested by now." The Arizona Democrat and retired Marine added that Garland "has not been helpful in terms of preserving our democracy."
It was against this backdrop that the Justice Department announced that the attorney general would deliver important remarks on federal law enforcement's response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Garland's speech, delivered yesterday, proved to be surprisingly interesting. Take this excerpt, for example:
"In the first months of the investigation, approximately 145 defendants pled guilty to misdemeanors, mostly defendants who did not cause injury or damage. Such pleas reflect the facts of those cases and the defendants' acceptance of responsibility. And they help conserve both judicial and prosecutorial resources, so that attention can properly focus on the more serious perpetrators. In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later charged offenses. This is purposeful, as investigators methodically collect and sift through more evidence."
For those who've seen police procedurals on television, this makes sense. Prosecutors pursue simpler, easier, more obvious charges, secure convictions, and work their way up. Garland added:
"We build investigations by laying a foundation. We resolve more straightforward cases first because they provide the evidentiary foundation for more complex cases. Investigating the more overt crimes generates linkages to less overt ones. Overt actors and the evidence they provide can lead us to others who may also have been involved. And that evidence can serve as the foundation for further investigative leads and techniques. In circumstances like those of January 6th, a full accounting does not suddenly materialize. To ensure that all those criminally responsible are held accountable, we must collect the evidence. We follow the physical evidence. We follow the digital evidence. We follow the money. But most important, we follow the facts — not an agenda or an assumption. The facts tell us where to go next."
For those who've been critical of Garland for not going further to prosecute higher-level Jan. 6 offenders, this seemed to offer some encouragement. Yes, rank-and-file pro-Trump rioters have been charged now, but the Justice Department isn't done. Indeed, the attorney general was rather explicit on this point:
"The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last. The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy. We will follow the facts wherever they lead."
This quote, and the "at any level" phrasing, was of particular importance, not just to those of us who were listening, but to the Justice Department: This excerpt was flagged for reporters in advance of Garland speaking. Officials wanted it to get extra attention.
What's less clear is the scope of the attorney general's message. When he referred to "perpetrators," was Garland pointing to those who were literally part of assault on the U.S. Capitol one year ago today, or will the Justice Department see the attack as part of a larger plot to overturn the election and undermine our democracy?
That answer, at least for now, is elusive. The attorney general raised some interesting prospects yesterday, and he implicitly asked for patience as the process moves forward. Garland seemed to choose his words carefully, and he gave every indication that what we've seen in terms of Jan. 6 prosecutions are a precursor to another phase in the law enforcement effort.
But what that phase may entail, and when we might learn of its details, remains to be seen. Watch this space.