WASHINGTON — It's the "most wide-ranging investigation" in Justice Department history: the unprecedented manhunt for hundreds of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Donald Trump's behalf on Jan. 6, 2021, and the criminal inquiry into efforts to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
It's also a logistical nightmare.
As cases against Capitol rioters work their way through the court system and a federal grand jury hears testimony about Trump’s role in Jan. 6, some federal officials are raising concerns that it could bring the already stretched investigation of Jan. 6 to a breaking point.
In conversations with NBC News in recent months, more than a dozen sources familiar with the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation expressed varying degrees of worry about whether the resources the Justice Department has allocated to the effort are sufficient for such a vast criminal investigation.
Federal officials have made about 850 arrests in the nearly 19 months since the Capitol attack, but that's still only a minor fraction of the more than 2,500 people who entered the building and the hundreds more who committed serious crimes outside but haven't yet been arrested. The massive trove of evidence — be it body camera and surveillance video or damning content generated by suspects themselves — presents a tremendous challenge for an enormous bureaucracy working with technology that's often a few years behind the times, at best.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, which is overseeing the Capitol siege investigation, is also running separate inquiries exploring the fake electors scheme and a conspiracy to obstruct the Jan. 6 electoral vote certification, both of which touch on Trump's actions in the lead-up to Jan. 6, as well as on the day of the attack.
Even with the daunting task of bringing those future prosecutions forward, officials have to manage a massive docket full of cases that need to be resolved either by plea or at trial, each with its own enormous discovery demands and trial clock.
Although hundreds of ready-made cases are in the hands of federal law enforcement officials, the pace of arrests has slowed noticeably. Every new case requires new resources from the Justice Department and the FBI, as well as any other law enforcement entity assisting with arrests — which often take place far away from the nearest FBI field office — and starts the clock on defendants' speedy trial rights.
The Justice Department has asked for help. Its 2023 budget request asks Congress for more than $34 million to fund 130 employees, including 80 federal prosecutors, to aid the "extraordinary," "unprecedented" and "complex" investigation.
The Justice Department didn't get the requested funding in the omnibus spending bill that passed in March — it was included in a fiscal year 2023 spending bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee last month.
Attorney General Merrick Garland told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview this week that he was “confident” that the Justice Department could handle the workload regardless of what Congress does.
“Of course, we’d like more resources, and if Congress wants to give that to us, that would be very nice,” Garland said Tuesday. “But we have people — prosecutors and agents — from all over the country working on this matter, and I have every confidence in their ability, their professionalism, their dedication to this task.”
Others close to the investigation say it is at a crossroads.
“We don’t have the manpower,” an official said, noting that many Jan. 6 participants who will eventually be charged haven't yet been arrested, in the interest of case management.
Another official said the squeeze was “a culmination” of numerous factors, including the need to provide support for the cases that are now moving to trial.
A third official said some of the prosecutors who were detailed to Washington to work Capitol riot cases from U.S. attorney's offices around the country are being pulled back to their offices.
“It’s kind of a work-in-progress,” the official said.
Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, an MSNBC legal analyst, said: "People are concerned about the resources. It's an enormous amount of cases, and that puts pressure not just on DOJ, but on the courts and probation. It puts pressure on the entire system."
One reason for hope, sources say, is that a new batch of "term AUSAs," or assistant U.S. attorneys hired on a temporary basis, will soon join the Capitol Siege Section, providing much-needed relief that could help manage the existing docket and speed up new cases. It's just a bonus that the two-year positions appeal to young lawyers who may already be very familiar with the technology and social media platforms that have played huge roles in the Jan. 6 probe, an official said.
The Justice Department's budget request said the Capitol investigation is taking away resources from federal prosecutors across the country who are dealing with a host of other law enforcement challenges.
"This will have a detrimental impact on the United States Attorneys’ ability to backfill vacancies and prosecute important cases in other jurisdictions," the Justice Department told Congress. "The funding is necessary for the continued prosecutions of the growing number of cases related to this breach of the U.S. Capitol that has left the Department with an immense task of finding and charging those responsible for the attacks."