Garland says the Jan. 6 investigation won't end until everyone is held accountable
On his first anniversary as attorney general, Merrick Garland said he's committed to unraveling the conspiracy behind the storming of the U.S. Capitol, in what he calls "the most urgent investigation in the history of the Justice Department."
Members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot have asserted that former President Donald Trump could be charged with conspiracy and obstruction for his actions. But Democrats in Congress and even some of Garland's friends have worried he'll shy away from the political firestorm that would result from charging a former commander in chief with a crime.
"We are not avoiding cases that are political or cases that are controversial or sensitive," the attorney general said in an exclusive interview with NPR. "What we are avoiding is making decisions on a political basis, on a partisan basis."
This week, prosecutors won their first convictions in federal court in a Jan. 6 case against former Texas oil worker Guy Reffitt. That followed a guilty plea to seditious conspiracy by an Alabama man affiliated with the far-right Oath Keepers militia.
"We begin with the cases that are right in front of us with the overt actions and then we build from there," Garland said. "And that is a process that we will continue to build until we hold everyone accountable who committed criminal acts with respect to Jan. 6."
Garland discussed his wide remit, where the priorities range from price-fixing in the chicken industry to Russian oligarchs financing the war in Ukraine with ill-gotten gains. Here are highlights from the interview:
Extraordinary resources devoted to the Jan. 6 probe
Every FBI office, almost every U.S. attorney's office in the country is working on this matter. We've issued thousands of subpoenas, seized and examined thousands of electronic devices, examined terabytes of data, thousands of hours of videos. People are working every day, 24/7, and are fully aware of how important this is. This had to do with the interference with the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another. And it doesn't get more important than that.
The rise in hate crimes against Black, Asian and Jewish people
That's our job, that's in the DNA of the Justice Department. And so protection of civil rights is one of my three main priorities, and I am convinced that the FBI and the other elements of the Justice Department are all-in on that project.
Every morning, I meet with the FBI to go over threats to the country, including threats, domestic threats and very often hate crimes. I spoke with the rabbi in that [Texas] synagogue just after the event occurred there. You know, this was a case in which we threw the hostage rescue team into the matter from the FBI. So I can assure you that the FBI has made this in its highest priority threat band and everything I see, every indication that that is the way they're treating this.
Struggling with voting rights after Supreme Court decisions
You are right that the Supreme Court has taken away some of our tools, the most important one being Section 5, which allowed us to pre-clear changes in practices and procedures of voting so we could not have to look at every case one by one to determine whether there was discrimination in those patterns in those practices and procedures.
We have Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows us to go after discrimination, individual cases. But again, you are right, the Supreme Court has narrowly restricted what I think is the correct view of Section 2 and which previously was the Supreme Court's view of Section 2. So we have problems in both of those areas.
That has not prevented us from bringing cases against states that have instituted practices and procedures. ... And we will continue to do that and we will make those decisions based on our best reading of the law and the facts.
The federal death penalty after the Boston Marathon bomber decision
I have spoken several times about my concerns about the death penalty, about the arbitrariness of its application, given how seldom it's applied in the federal system and with respect to its disparate impact on people of color. And with respect to exonerations that we've seen, not only in death penalty cases, but in other serious offenses. So I have those concerns, particularly with respect to the moratorium.
I have concerns about the changes that were made at the end of 2020, which led to the first executions in many, many years in the federal system. These included evaluation of the use of pentobarbital as the drug of execution and evaluation of changes that were made at the end of 2020 with respect to the procedures and the manner both of those are. It's an ongoing review.
How running the DOJ is different from serving as a judge
Judges have to sit and wait until a great case or something important comes to them. Here I can read an urgent report in the morning. Or more important, I can hear something on NPR from you pointing out a problem that either in the country or the Justice Department is doing, and we can do something about that.
At the end of the day, and I will, for your benefit, tell you one thing you recently wrote about was the effort of by some prosecutors and officers to require waivers with respect to compassionate release that a defendant who pleads guilty to an offense would be required also to waive their right to seek compassionate release, perhaps years down the line when they are warranted on medical or other grounds. That sounded wrong, and we, immediately after I read your piece, started investigating that ... And very soon we will be issuing new policies to prevent those kind of across the board requirements that defendants waive their rights to seek compassionate release.
On how long he'll stay in the job
Two things I love about this job, first of all, is the enormous breadth of what we do everything in. In any particular day, I can do things from antitrust to environment to civil rights, to defending policies of the administration on legal grounds to launching a task force to freeze and seize the assets of oligarchs who are facilitating this awful war in Ukraine.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.