Garland vows prosecutions 'at any level' over Jan. 6

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday defended the Justice Department’s approach to prosecuting those involved in the Jan. 6 riot, signaling the potential for charges against those who never set foot in the Capitol.

“The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last. The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January six 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,” Garland said on the eve of the attack's one-year anniversary.

The attorney general’s remarks came as Democratic lawmakers voice impatience with the Department of Justice's (DOJ) apparent unwillingness to target leaders who may have prompted the attack on the Capitol.

In recent weeks, the House Jan. 6 Select Committee has even signaled that it is considering criminal referrals to the DOJ if it finds evidence that former President Trump or members of his inner circle violated the law in connection with the riot.

In the nearly 30 minute speech, Garland defended the department's strategy of prosecuting more direct cases of those present in the building.

“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 a foundation for further investigative leads and techniques,” he said.

“Those involved must be held accountable. And there is no higher priority for us at the Department of Justice.”

The DOJ has charged more than 725 defendants in connection with the attack, filings made after reviewing more than 20,000 hours of video footage of that attack and serving more than 5,000 subpoenas and search warrants.

Garland said Wednesday that more than 300 of those defendants have been charged with felonies.

But even as the House select committee moves ahead with investigating Trump and his allies, there has been little to suggest that federal prosecutors have their sights set on political leaders who may have played a role in rallying the former president’s supporters to try and stop the Electoral College certification.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the Jan. 6 panel, said last month that one of the key questions for lawmakers is how culpable Trump is for last year’s violence.

“Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’ official proceedings to count electoral votes?” Cheney asked during a hearing, citing a felony charge that has been brought against many of the Jan. 6 defendants.

Democratic lawmakers renewed their frustrations Wednesday after Garland’s speech.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who serves on the Jan. 6 committee, said DOJ cannot maintain its position that current and former presidents are immune from prosecution.

“What was left unsaid, was whether the Justice Department was equally committed to holding accountable those who may have violated our criminal laws by trying to overturn the election in the days leading up to January 6 or thereafter,” Schiff said in a statement.

He then referenced specific efforts by Trump in Georgia and elsewhere.

“It has now become clear that January 6 was not an isolated occurrence, but part of a multi-pronged strategy to overturn a presidential election and negate the will of the voters,” he added.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) likewise said authorities needed to focus on the riot planners and funders who stoked the violence.

“Sweeping up low-level players while ignoring the kingpins upstream isn’t a full investigation,” he said in a statement.

DOJ has taken some action on behalf of the Jan. 6 committee, filing charges against one-time White House strategist Steve Bannon after he refused to comply with a subpoena from lawmakers.

The full House made a similar referral for former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, on which DOJ has not yet acted.

But Garland said the department would shy away from answering questions about the course or timing of its investigations.

“We understand that there are questions about how long the investigation will take, and about what exactly we are doing. Our answer is and will continue to be the same answer we would give with respect to any ongoing investigation: as long as it takes and whatever it takes for justice to be done consistent with the facts and the law,” he said.

“I understand that this may not be the answer some are looking for. But we will and we must speak through our work. Anything else jeopardizes the viability of our investigations,” Garland added.

Garland also dedicated a significant portion of his speech to addressing voting rights, aligning with a push from Senate Democrats to take up voting legislation and other democracy reforms. 

The attorney general said a wave of state laws restricting voting access and a number of new partisan gerrymandered maps “have been justified by unfounded claims of material vote fraud in the 2020 election.”

“Those claims which have corroded people's faith in the legitimacy of our elections, have been repeatedly refuted by the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of both the last administration and this one,” Garland said.

“It is essential that Congress act to give the department the powers we need to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) this week said the Senate would soon take up voting rights legislation, threatening to change chamber rules regarding the filibuster if such legislation did not pass prior to Martin Luther King Day.

"Make no mistake about it: this week Senate Democrats will make clear that what happened on Jan. 6 and the one-sided, partisan actions being taken by Republican-led state legislatures across the country are directly linked, and we can and must take strong action to stop this anti-democratic march," Schumer wrote earlier this week.

“Jan. 6 was a symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process, and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm.”

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