The FBI had barely decamped from Mar-a-Lago when allies of former President Donald J. Trump, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, began a bombardment of vitriol and threats against the man they regard as an enemy and a foil: Attorney General Merrick B Garland.
Mr. Garland, a bookish former justice who, during his unsuccessful Supreme Court nomination in 2016, told senators he had no “political bone” in his body, responded, as he does so often, by not responding.
The Department of Justice would not recognize the execution of a search warrant at Mr. Trump’s home on Monday, nor have Mr. Garland’s aides confirmed his involvement in the decision or even whether he knew of the search before it was carried out. They declined to comment on any facts brought to their attention. Mr Garland’s schedule this week is devoid of any public events where he could be questioned by reporters.
Like a captain trying not to drift out of sight and into the hurricane, Mr. Garland hopes to navigate the sprawling and multifaceted investigation into the actions of Mr. Trump and his supporters after the 2020 election without compromising the integrity of the accusation. or destroy his legacy.
To that end, the Attorney General is operating with maximum stealth and minimum public comment, a course similar to that charted by Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, during his two-year investigation of Mr. Trump. links with Russia.
This low-key approach may avoid the pitfalls of relatively more public investigations into Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by James B. Comey, the FBI director at the time. But that comes with its own peril — ceding control of the public narrative to Mr. Trump and his allieswho are not compelled by law, or even by facts, to fight back.
“Garland has said he wants his investigation to be apolitical, but nothing he does will stop Trump from distorting the perception of the investigation, given the asymmetrical rules,” said Andrew Weissmann, who was the one of Mr. Mueller’s main aides in the special investigation. law office.
“Under Justice Department policy, we were not allowed to take this criticism,” Weissmann added. “Playing by the Department of Justice unfortunately reigns but necessarily leaves the playing field open to such abuse.”
Mr. Mueller’s refusal to engage with his critics, or even defend himself against blatant slander and lies, has allowed Mr. Trump to fill the political vacuum with reckless accusations of witch-hunting while the special counsel confined his public statements to dense legalese. Mr. Trump’s broadsides helped frame the Russia inquiry as a partisan attack, despite the fact that Mr. Mueller was a Republican.
Some of the top Justice Department officials making the decisions now have deep ties to Mr. Mueller and see Mr. Comey’s willingness to openly discuss his 2016 investigations of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump as a flagrant violation. of the Justice Manual, the department’s procedural guide.
Key revelations from the January 6 hearings
Key revelations from the January 6 hearings
Advocacy against Trump. The House committee investigating the January 6 attack is setting up a full story of President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to annul the 2020 election. Here are the main themes that have emerged from the eight public hearings to date:
The Mar-a-Lago The search warrant was requested by the National Security Division of the Justice Department, whose head, Matthew G. Olsen, served under Mr. Mueller when he was director of the FBI. In 2019, Mr. Olsen expressed his astonishment that the publicity-shy Mr. Mueller was even willing to appear at a press conference announcing his decision to speak out against Mr. Trump’s conduct, but without recommending that he be prosecuted or held accountable for his interference in the investigation of Russia.
But people close to Mr. Garland say that while his team respects Mr. Mueller, they have learned from his mistakes. Mr. Garland, despite his silence this week, has made it a point to speak publicly about the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on numerous occasions — even if only to explain why he doesn’t. cannot speak publicly about the investigation.
“I understand that may not be the answer some are looking for,” he said during a speech marking the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol. “But we will and we have to speak through our work. Anything else jeopardizes the viability of our investigations and the civil liberties of our citizens. »
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At the time, that comment was meant to appease Democrats who wanted him to pursue Mr. Trump more aggressively. Now it is Republican leaders, including Mr. McCarthy, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former Vice President Mike Pence, who are demanding a public explanation for his actions.
Mr. Garland enjoys a significant advantage over Mr. Mueller as he heads into battle. The House committee investigating the assault on the Capitol intends to continue its investigation into the fall, and its members plan to make the issue of Mr. Trump’s actions a central political issue during the midterm elections and into 2024, providing Mr. Garland with the kind of cover fire Mr. Mueller never had.
Still, some of the attorney general’s supporters think he should do more to defend himself.
Even though the Justice Department doesn’t typically talk about cases, guidelines preventing prosecutors from publicly discussing criminal investigations include exceptions to the mother-is-the-word standard. Federal prosecutors sometimes explain why they choose not to press charges in high-profile cases if it is deemed to be in the public interest.
“In our time, does the public interest demand more?” said Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, who believes the department can better educate the public about how the rule of law works — without violating laws governing grand jury material and ethical considerations.
“When Trump calls it a raid, why not explain how a search warrant works?” she asked. “Could this kind of information come from the mouth of a civil servant, rather than a legal analyst on television?
But Justice Department officials are painfully aware of the risks they face in such a politically sensitive investigation, and many are bracing for the probes that Republicans have explicitly threatened if they retake the House in the election. of November.
As a result, Mr. Garland’s aides have been reluctant to divulge even basic information, including the attorney general’s role in major decisions or the deployment of key personnel like Thomas P. Windom, who was typed last fall to lead the investigation out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.
The FBI search at Mar-a-Lago appears to have focused on Mr. Trump’s handling of materials he took from the White House residence at the end of his presidency, including many pages of classified documents.
For now, there is no indication that the research, which has been approved by a federal judge, is related to the department’s broader investigation into the plan to create lists of voters who falsely said Mr. Trump had won in major swing states in 2020.
However, the information gathered by Mar-a-Lago investigators could be used in other cases if it proves relevant, according to Norman L. Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of Mar-a-Lago. Mr Trump.
Nonetheless, on Monday night, the former president and his supporters tried to seize the offensive by filling the rhetorical vacuum left by federal investigators, accusing Mr. Garland of perverting justice for political motives.
In the past, Democrats have consistently argued that Mr. Trump’s behavior as president evokes the actions of dictators in other countries. In a statement late Monday on the Mar-a-Lago search, Mr. Trump redirected that line of criticism.
“This is prosecutorial misconduct, the militarization of the justice system, and an attack by hard-left Democrats who desperately do not want me to run for president in 2024,” he said in the statement, adding: “Such aggression could only take place in the broken countries of the Third World.
As often happens, this argument has quickly become a model for its supporters, especially those running for office this year. “The weaponization of Biden’s DOJ against political enemies is unprecedented,” said Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri, the state’s Republican Senate nominee. wrote on Twitter. “It’s Banana Republic stuff,” he added.
But no one has gone as far as Mr. McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who has sought to rehabilitate his relationship with the former president after he strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s actions on January 6.
“I’ve seen enough” Mr. McCarthy said. “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of militarized politicization. When Republicans take over the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned. »
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not comment.