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On the eve of the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed to pursue the perpetrators of the violent attack “at any level,” and promised to “follow the facts wherever they lead.”
“The Justice Department remains committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law, whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy,” Garland said Wednesday in a televised speech delivered from the Justice Department.
Garland sought to provide the public with an update on the federal criminal investigation that was launched in the aftermath of the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol as Congress met to certify the results of the 2020 election. So far, prosecutions stemming from the probe — which Garland described as one of the “largest, most complex and most resource-intensive investigations in our history” — have focused on the individual rioters who physically breached the Capitol complex, rather than high-profile figures like the former president and his allies, who promoted bogus election fraud narratives that many of the rioters have said served as the motivation for the Jan. 6 attack.
Though he did not specifically mention Trump or anyone else who may be under investigation for their role in the insurrection, Garland assured the public that the Justice Department had not concluded its efforts.
“The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last,” he said.
The attorney general also attempted to defend his department’s strategy of going after Jan. 6 defendants charged with the least serious offenses first, apparently acknowledging recent criticism over the fact that the vast majority of guilty pleas obtained from Jan. 6 defendants to date have been for misdemeanors, resulting in relatively light prison sentences.
“In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later-charged offenses. This is purposeful,” Garland said, insisting that this method “helps conserve” resources and attention “on the most serious perpetrators” while “investigators methodically collect and sift through more evidence.”
According to the Justice Department, approximately 165 of those arrested thus far have pleaded guilty to a variety of federal charges, 145 of which were for misdemeanors, and just 70 defendants have been sentenced to jail time for their crimes. Of those whose cases have been adjudicated, only 30 have been sentenced to serve time in prison, while the majority have received much milder penalties, such as a period of house arrest or parole.
Garland noted, however, that “we have charged over 325 with felonies,” many for assaulting officers, adding that “in recent weeks, we’ve seen significant sentences for assaults.”
In fact, the longest sentence to date stemming from the Jan. 6 investigation was handed down last month to Robert Palmer, who was ordered to serve 63 months — more than five years — in prison after he pleaded guilty to assaulting, resisting or impeding officers with a dangerous weapon.
More multiyear prison sentences could be coming.
“In months ahead, 17 defendants are scheduled to go to trial for their role in felony conspiracies,” Garland said
The rioters got within 2 doors of Vice President Mike Pence's office. See how in this 3D explainer from Yahoo Immersive.
With the one-year anniversary of the attack falling on Thursday, and the midterm election campaign cycle already kicking into gear, some critics have accused Garland of moving too slowly, potentially allowing Trump and his supporters to avoid culpability for the Jan. 6 attack.
"We understand that there are questions about how long the investigation will take, and about what exactly we are doing,” Garland said. “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.”
Garland framed the the ongoing Jan. 6 probe as part of what he described as the Justice Department’s broader mission — “to defend the American people and American democracy” — and highlighted other efforts to combat the “rise in violence and threats of violence in shared public spaces and directed at those that serve the public,” from election officials and school board members to journalists and airline flight crews.
“In 2021, the Justice Department charged more defendants in criminal threat cases than any year in at least the last five,” Garland said, arguing that such threats “are permeating so many parts of our national life that they risk becoming normalized and routine if we do not stop them.”
“That is dangerous for people’s safety, and it is deeply dangerous for our democracy,” he warned, insisting that “the time to address threats is when they are made, not after the tragedy has struck.”