The Justice Department plans to prosecute anyone who was “criminally responsible for interfering with the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday, speaking more expansively than he has previously about a federal criminal investigation that appears to have moved far beyond the rioters who attacked the Capitol.
In an exclusive interview with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, Garland said that the televised hearings by the House Jan. 6 committee highlighted “the truth of what happened … and what a risk it meant for our democracy.” And he acknowledged that Justice Department investigators learned things from the congressional testimony.
“Look, the Justice Department has been doing the most wide-ranging investigation in its history,” he said. “And the committee is doing an enormously wide-ranging investigation as well. It is inevitable that there will be things that they find before we have found them. And it’s inevitable that there will be things we find that they haven’t found. That’s what happens when you have two wide-ranging investigations going on at the same time.”
A day after news broke that the chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence had been called before a federal grand jury investigating Jan. 6, Holt pressed Garland on whether the Justice Department would indict former President Donald Trump if the evidence supported such an action.
“The indictment of a former president, and perhaps a candidate for president, would arguably tear the country apart,” Holt said. “Is that your concern as you make your decision down the road here, do you have to think about things like that?”
Garland replied: “We intend to hold everyone, anyone who was criminally responsible for the events surrounding Jan. 6, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another, accountable. That’s what we do. We don’t pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.”
Holt followed up, asking whether, if Trump were to become a candidate for president again, “that would not change your schedule or how you move forward or don’t move forward?”
Garland responded: “I’ll say again that we will hold accountable anyone who was criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the transfer, legitimate, lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next.”
Garland has previously spoken about the peaceful transfer of power, but in the context of the attack on the Capitol. In a speech on Jan. 5, Garland described the assault as “interfering with a fundamental element of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.”
But Garland’s language in the Tuesday interview appeared to hint at a broader focus — any criminal interference with the transfer of power, not just actions connected to the attack. Some experts have argued that many of Trump’s actions, including his attempt to use the Justice Department to advance bogus claims of fraud and his effort to pressure Pence prior to Jan. 6, are part of a criminal scheme to halt the transfer of power.
Since January, the Justice Department has acknowledged that it is investigating those who put forth slates of fake electors. And Marc Short, who was chief of staff to Vice President Pence, testified last week before a federal grand jury in Washington, according to a person familiar with the matter — the highest-ranking person in the Trump White House known to have done so.
The Jan. 6 hearings highlighted allegations that Trump knew the crowd of protesters was armed, but wanted them to march to the Capitol anyway — and that he sought to pressure the Justice Department and Pence in schemes to undermine and overturn the legitimate election results. Many legal experts say the hearings presented a robust legal road map for a series of prosecutions that could include Trump.
“The only pressure that I, my prosecutors or the agents feel is the pressure to do the right thing,” Garland said. “That’s the only way we can pursue the rule of law. That’s the only way we can keep the confidence of the American people in the rule of law, which is an essential part of our democratic system.”
On other topics, Holt asked Garland about the recent spate of mass shootings and how authorities can detect troubled individuals before they commit violence.
“This is the most difficult question in a democracy,” he said.
“We have to respect the First Amendment. We can’t just troll the internet looking at what everybody in the country is doing. But we have joint terrorism task forces, which evaluate both foreign and domestic terrorists and domestic violent extremists including racially motivated violent extremists, which was what you’re talking about. We need to have eyes on the ground. This is why our cooperation with local communities and our cooperation with state and local law enforcement is so important.”