In his nine months in office, Attorney General Merrick Garland has done a great deal to restore integrity and evenhanded enforcement of the law to an agency that was badly misused for political reasons under his predecessor. But his place in history will be assessed against the challenges that confronted him. And the overriding test that he and the rest of the government face is the threat to our democracy from people bent on destroying it.
Garland’s success depends on ensuring that the rule of law endures. That means dissuading future coup plotters by holding the leaders of the insurrection fully accountable for their attempt to overthrow the government. But he cannot do so without a robust criminal investigation of those at the top, from the people who planned, assisted or funded the attempt to overturn the Electoral College vote to those who organized or encouraged the mob attack on the Capitol. To begin with, he might focus on Mark Meadows, Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and even Donald Trump — all of whom were involved, in one way or another, in the events leading up to the attack.
Almost a year after the insurrection, we have yet to see any clear indicators that such an investigation is underway, raising the alarming possibility that this administration may never bring charges against those ultimately responsible for the attack.
While the Justice Department has filed charges against more than 700 people who participated in the violence, limiting the investigation to these foot soldiers would be a grave mistake: As Joanne Freeman, a Yale historian, wrote this month about the insurrection, “Accountability — the belief that political power holders are responsible for their actions and that blatant violations will be addressed — is the lifeblood of democracy. Without it, there can be no trust in government, and without trust, democratic governments have little power.”
The legal path to investigate the leaders of the coup attempt is clear. The criminal code prohibits inciting an insurrection or “giving aid or comfort” to those who do, as well as conspiracy to forcibly “prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States.” The code also makes it a crime to corruptly impede any official proceeding or deprive citizens of their constitutional right to vote.
Based purely on what we know today from news reports and the steady stream of revelations coming from the House select committee investigating the attack, the attorney general has a powerful justification for a robust and forceful investigation into the former president and his inner circle. As White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows was intimately involved in the effort to overturn the election. He traveled to Georgia last December, where he apparently laid the groundwork for the phone call in which the president pressured Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find 11,780 votes.” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio reportedly promoted a scheme to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to reject duly certified Joe Biden electors. And from their war room at the Willard Hotel, several members of the president’s inner circle hatched the legal strategy to overturn the results of the election.
The president himself sat back for three hours while his chief of staff was barraged with messages from members of Congress and Fox News hosts pleading with him to have Trump call off the armed mob whose violent passion he had inflamed. That evidence, on its own, may not be enough to convict the former president, but it is certainly enough to require a criminal investigation.
And yet there are no signs, at least in media reports, that the attorney general is building a case against these individuals — no interviews with top administration officials, no reports of attempts to persuade the foot soldiers to turn on the people who incited them to violence. By this point in the Russia investigation, the special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and secured the cooperation of George Papadopoulos after charging him with lying to the FBI. The media was reporting that the special counsel’s team had conducted or scheduled interviews with Trump’s aides Stephen Miller and Bannon, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Of course, there is no way to know for sure whether Garland’s Department of Justice is investigating the leaders of the attack behind closed doors. Justice Department policy does not permit announcing investigations, absent exceptional circumstances. Garland, unlike his predecessor, plays by the book, keeping quiet about investigations until charges are filed.
But the first of the rioters to plead guilty began cooperating with the Justice Department back in April. If prosecutors have been using their cooperation to investigate the top officials and operatives responsible for the siege of the Capitol and our democracy, there would likely be significant confirmation in the media by now.
It is possible that the department is deferring the decision about starting a full-blown investigative effort pending further work by the House select committee. It is even conceivable that the department is waiting for the committee’s final report so that federal prosecutors can review the documents, interviews and recommendations amassed by House investigators and can consider any potential referrals for criminal prosecution.
But such an approach would come at a very high cost. In the prosecution business, interviews need to happen as soon as possible after the events in question, to prevent both forgetfulness and witness coordination to conceal the truth. A comprehensive Department of Justice probe of the leadership is now more urgently needed than ever.
It is also imperative that Trump be included on the list of those being investigated. The media has widely reported his role in many of the relevant events, and there is no persuasive reason to exclude him.
First, he has no claim to constitutional immunity from prosecution. The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel has recognized such immunity only for sitting presidents because a criminal trial would prevent them from discharging the duties of their office. Trump no longer has those duties to discharge.
Nor is exclusion of the former president remotely justified by the precedent President Gerald Ford set in pardoning Richard Nixon to help the country “heal” from Watergate. Even our proud tradition of not mimicking banana republics by allowing political winners to retaliate against losers must give way in the wake of violence perpetrated to thwart the peaceful transition of power. Refusing to at least investigate those who plot to end democracy — and who would remain engaged in efforts to do so — would be beyond foolhardy.
Furthermore, the pending state and local investigations in New York and Atlanta will never be able to provide the kind of accountability the nation clearly needs. The New York case, which revolves around tax fraud, has nothing to do with the attack on our government. The Atlanta district attorney appears to be probing Trump’s now infamous call to Raffensperger. But that is just one chapter of the wrongdoing that led up to the attack on the Capitol.
Significantly, even if the Atlanta district attorney is able to convict Meadows and Trump for interfering in Georgia’s election, they could still run for office again. Only convicting them for participating in an insurrection would permanently disqualify them from office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.
Some have expressed pessimism that the Department of Justice would be able to convict Trump. His guilt would ultimately be for a jury to decide, and some jurors might believe he deluded himself into believing his own big lie and thus genuinely thought he was saving, rather than sabotaging, the election. But concerns about a conviction are no reason to refrain from an investigation. If anything, a federal criminal investigation could unearth even more evidence and provide a firmer basis for deciding whether to indict.
To decline from the outset to investigate would be appeasement, pure and simple, and appeasing bullies and wrongdoers only encourages more of the same. Without forceful action to hold the wrongdoers to account, we will likely not resist what some retired generals see as a march to another insurrection in 2024 if Trump or another demagogue loses.
Throughout his public life, Garland has been a highly principled public servant focused on doing the right thing. But only by holding the leaders of the Jan. 6 insurrection — all of them — to account can he secure the future and teach the next generation that no one is above the law. If he has not done so already, we implore the attorney general to step up to that task.
Laurence H. Tribe is a university professor emeritus at Harvard Law School. Donald Ayer was a U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration and deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. Dennis Aftergut is a former assistant U.S. attorney.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.