WASHINGTON (AP) — When the Justice Department in Washington announced the highest-profile prosecution in its history, Attorney General Merrick Garland was 100 miles away meeting with local Philadelphia police.
He stepped outside briefly to discuss the decision Charge Donald Trump with conspiring to overthrow the year 2020 The election came from professional prosecutors and was led by a special counsel who advocates “accountability and independence”.
In other words, this was not about politics.
No matter how hard Garland tries, there is no escaping the politics of the moment when the Justice Department of a president running for re-election indicts his key political rival, the front runner for the Republican nomination.
And although he has distanced himself from the investigation since his appointment as Special Counsel Jack Smith ten months ago, Garland has the final say on matters related to Trump’s prosecution while he is attorney general.
The Justice Department faces its greatest test in history as it grapples with unprecedented conditions in American democracy while attempting to defend itself against relentless attacks on its own credibility and that of the US electoral system. The success or failure of the case may tarnish the department’s standing for years to come.
“By and large, this is a really big historic moment for the Justice Department,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
President Joe Biden has attempted to distance himself from the Justice Department to avoid any appearance of interference as the agency investigates not only Trump but also also the son of President Hunter. But it will also be more difficult for Biden. Anything he says from now on about the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot could complicate matters for prosecutors. And any trial will likely take place against the backdrop of the 2024 presidential election.
The latest indictment is the third criminal case against Trump this year, but the first seeking to criminally indict him for his efforts to seize power in the weeks between his election defeat and the attack on the Capitol that shocked the world hold to accountability. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday before a federal judge and was ordered not to speak to potential witnesses about the case.
Trump has said he did nothing wrong and has filed charges blacksmith to try to thwart his chances of a return to the White House in 2024. Trump and other Republicans have railed against the investigation and the Justice Department in general, claiming a two-tier justice system that denigrates Trump and is lenient Biden’s son accused of tax crimes after years of investigation.
“Another dark day in America as Joe Biden continues to use his corrupt Justice Department as a weapon against his leading political opponent Donald J. Trump,” said US Rep. Elise Stefanik, RN.Y.
Trump’s own Justice Department has been the subject of complaints of politicization and has drawn criticism as the federal probe into Russia’s 2016 election meddling put prosecutors in the spotlight and protracted scandals Trump used as evidence of a ” deep state”.
The release of the Russia report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was politically charged, as then-Attorney General William Barr issued a four-page memo leading up to the report that was widely criticized for skewing the probe’s findings in Trump’s favour. Mueller’s current report – two volumes and 448 pages — was much more nuanced, laying out in part how Trump, after appointing the special counsel in May 2017, directed others to influence or limit the Russia investigation.
On November 9, 2020, as Trump began to suspect, without any evidence, that widespread voter fraud might occur, Barr issued an executive order urging prosecutors to investigate all suspected cases. But by the end of the Trump administration, Barr had turned against Trump, tells The Associated Press before telling the President that there had been no widespread voter fraud.
Garland, a longtime Circuit Court Justice who was selected by Barack Obama to serve on the US Supreme Court but was never heard, was selected viewed by President Biden as a stabilizing force. He vowed to return the Justice Department to “normal,” restoring its reputation for political independence and ensuring equal justice.
Throughout his career, Garland has been deeply immersed in Justice Department procedures and norms, and as a judge, his decisions have been thorough but “legally humble,” said Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who served as assistant attorney general in the 1990s and a colleague of Garland has been and friend for decades.
“His view was: you do what you have to do thoroughly and well and you get nothing, you don’t do more than you have to do,” she said.
While Garland has not been directly involved in the Trump case since Smith was appointed special counsel, the indictment announced Tuesday reflects a similar approach, she said. “It’s not based on crazy new theories. It doesn’t try to do more when less would be more effective,” she said.
In fact, the indictment covered much of the same subject as it did on live television. or was brought to light as part of the House inquiry into the January 6 riot, in which violent protesters beat and bled police officers, smashed windows and occupied the Capitol for hours.
If Smith loses the case, the Justice Department could lose credibility, especially as the tide of Republican attacks against the department mounts. If prosecutors win, a former president could face jail time. If Trump is re-elected, he could reverse the allegations and has said he plans to “completely overhaul the federal Department of Justice and the FBI,” part of a larger effort by Trump to bring more power to the presidency.
“There are issues at play right now that the Justice Department will continue to address for years to come,” said Robert Sanders, associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven. “The next 12 months will be a pivotal period in the history of this nation.”
Against this tense backdrop, the department’s broader work continues.
On the same day, federal prosecutors in Washington indicted Trump announced an admission of guilt in a racist assault about two black men who were abused in a Mississippi home raid. And US officials also announced the arrest of two US Navy soldiers Spying for China in California.
During his Philadelphia visit, Garland almost immediately returned to the community event he observed there, chatting to police officers outside while reporters called out questions about the unprecedented indictment. But Garland didn’t want to bite.
“I have appointed Jack Smith’s Special Council to take over the ongoing investigation to underscore the department’s commitment to accountability and independence,” he said. “Any questions regarding this matter must be answered by the documents filed in the courtroom.”
Associated Press writers Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.