On January 6, 2021, exactly two weeks before he took office, Joe Biden planned to hold a press conference announcing Merrick Garland as his election for Attorney General. This press conference had to be canceled because supporters of Donald Trump tried to stage a coup. They failed, but the attempt radically changed Garland’s job. Rather than restoring honor and stability to a Justice Department vandalized by Trump and Bill Barr, Garland would also be responsible for prosecuting the insurgents who attacked our Capitol.
A year later, Attorney General Garland gave a televised speech giving the country the status of what has become one of the largest investigations in American history. Garland reported that over 725 people were arrested and charged in connection with the attack. He said the DOJ is still looking for evidence and is accepting help from the public to identify additional perpetrators, and he vowed that he would prosecute “at any level” anyone who, for the 6th, does not physically have the Capitol building broken through.
He also asked for patience. So far, only 71 people, around ten percent of the defendants, have been convicted in connection with the attack, most of whom have been charged with minor offenses and given light sentences. Another 165 people pleaded guilty, most of them pending punishment. 220 people were charged with assaulting an officer, three of whom were sentenced to three years or more in prison. Garland also announced that 17 people were charged with conspiracy to obstruct Congress. This is the charge he appears to reserve for those most directly involved in plans to prevent Congress from confirming the election results.
Garland claims these numbers – which at least some critics find disappointing – are just the beginning. He says he is carrying out the age-old investigative strategy of starting small and moving up to the heavier perpetrators.
If that’s true, and Garland moves into more serious allegations against larger actors – allegations based on information gathered from individuals who have worked with the government in exchange for forbearance – his investigation would look something like what it looks like now . Unfortunately, if he intended to strain and put an end to the low-hanging fruits of the weekend warriors and QAnon clerics, his investigation would look like what they are doing now. Either scenario is possible at this point, although the impact of each one will lead the country down radically different paths in pursuit of justice.
If Garland is content to prosecute all but the most violent domestic insurgents with minor trespassing violations, he will treat a plan to overthrow the government essentially as a political rally that gets out of hand. This creates a culture of freedom of movement for the next coup attempt, because Trump’s forces will know that even if they fail, the Democrats will only slap their wrists. If instead it brings heavy charges and long prison terms against the coup plotters and the politicians who supported the violence, it will send a message that plans to overthrow the government are being taken at least as seriously as crack cocaine traffickers in northeast DC