WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) — Lawmakers are investigating the January 6 Capitol attack Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department are increasingly going public with important statements, court filings and more.
They say President Donald Trump and his allies may have committed crimes. And it’s up to you to do something about it.
“Attorney General Garland, do your job so we can do ours,” said Virginia Representative Ellen Luria.
“We are fulfilling our responsibility. The Justice Department should do the same,” echoed Representative Adam Schiff, D-California.
His rhetoric, centered on two contempt of Congress referrals approved by the committee this week, is the latest example of a pressure campaign being waged by lawmakers. It reflects a harsh reality: While they can investigate Jan. 6 and issue summons to gather information, only the Justice Department can bring criminal charges.
Committee members see the case they are making against Trump and his allies as a once-in-a-generation position. If it is not fully prosecuted, he says, it could set a dangerous precedent that threatens the very foundations of American democracy.
Once their job is done, lawmakers are almost certain to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
All of this puts Garland in a precarious place, who has spent his tenure trying to shield the Justice Department from political pressure. Any criminal charge relating to Jan. 6 would trigger a firestorm, pushing prosecutors back into the partisan crossfire that proved so damaging during the Trump-Russia influence investigation and an email investigation of Hillary Clinton.
Garland has given no public indication about whether prosecutors might consider the case against the former president. However, he has vowed to hold “all January 6 offenders, at any level, accountable” and said this would include those “who were present on that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the attack on our democracy.” “
It is already the largest criminal trial in the history of the department – for the rioters who broke into the Capitol building on January 6, as well as members of extremist groups who are accused of planning the attack. More than 750 people have been charged with federal crimes. More than 220 riot defendants have pleaded guilty, more than 100 have been sentenced and at least 90 others have pending trial dates.
Parts of the department’s investigation overlap with those of the committee. One example is in late January when Justice announced that it had opened an investigation into a fake slate of voters who falsely attempted to declare Trump the winner in the 2020 election in the seven swing states that Joe Biden won. Three days later, lawmakers summoned more than a dozen people involved in the effort.
But the January 6 committee wants more. His message escalated this week when a federal judge in California – District Judge David Carter, a Bill Clinton appointee – wrote that it is “highly unlikely” that Trump himself committed the crimes. In its attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 election.
The practical impact of that decision was to order the January 6 committee the release of more than 100 emails from Trump adviser John Eastman. But lawmakers took note of a particular passage in the judge’s opinion, portraying January 6 as a “coup”.
“Dr. Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to reverse a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history. Their campaign was not limited to the ivory tower – it was a coup in search of a legal principle,” Carter wrote.
But experts caution that Carter’s opinion was only in a civil case and does not meet the long-standing charge policy that the Justice Department is required to carry out. Philadelphia-based attorney and former federal prosecutor Justin Danielewitz noted that the department faces a high burden of evidence in court to show that the presidential immunity should not apply. And he said the legal advice Trump received from Eastman “undermines the presumption of corrupt or fraudulent intent.”
The department will be guided by evidence and the law, he said, “but the social and political implications of such a decision will not be taken away from the minds of Attorney General Garland and his staff.”
“The decision to bring or not to bring criminal charges will have a significant impact,” he said.
Trump spokeswoman Taylor Budovich called the judge’s decision an “absurd and baseless decision by a Clinton-appointed judge in California.” He called the House committee investigation a “circus of bias”.
Another point of friction with the Justice Department is the effort to enforce the summons. Through contempt of Congress allegations.
The House approved a contempt referral against former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in December after he stopped cooperating with the January 6 panel. While the first contempt referral resulted in an indictment against former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the Justice Department has been slow to decide whether to prosecute Meadows.
“The Justice Department is tasked with protecting our Constitution,” Republican committee chair Rep. Liz Cheney told a hearing this week. “Department leadership must not apply any principle of deterrence that may prevent Congress from fully uncovering and addressing the causes of the January 6 attack.”
The decision to pursue contempt charges against Meadows will have to come from career prosecutors at the US Attorney’s office in Washington before senior Justice Department officials will weigh in and decide how to proceed.
Bringing the case against Meadows would be more challenging for prosecutors than the case against Bannon, in large part because Bannon was not a White House official during the rebellion.
The Justice Department has long said that senior aides generally cannot be forced to testify if a president invokes executive privilege, as Trump has done. And making accusations could risk undermining the long-standing principle that the executive branch of government allows most discussions to be private.
While most members of the committee have pressured Garland, one member, Democratic Rep. Jamie Ruskin is not gone yet.
“I feel strongly that we restore the tradition of respecting the freedom of law enforcement function,” Ruskin told reporters this week. “It was one of those things that got trashed during the Trump period. And so I think Congress and the president should let the Justice Department and the attorney general do their job.”
“Attorney General Garland is my constituent,” Ruskin said, “and I don’t beat my constituents.”