On his first day as US attorney general last March, Merrick Garland told Justice Department employees that he was inspired by Edward Levi, a Republican who served in the same role under Gerald Ford in the 1970s.
Levi, like Garland, was a Chicago native, but more importantly, he was widely credited with restoring faith in American justice after the tumultuous and scandal-ridden presidency of Richard Nixon.
“The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the rules that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee since the Edward Levi as the first post-Watergate Attorney General,” Garland said. .
“These rules require that similar cases be treated in the same way. That there is not one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans; one rule for friends and another for enemies,” he added.
Garland is now trying to apply those principles to Donald Trump, an effort that has suddenly thrust the 69-year-old former judge and federal prosecutor into the political spotlight.
Until she authorized the FBI’s unprecedented search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence last week, Garland had faced frustration from the left over her perceived faltering in the ‘time to investigate Trump, especially in relation to the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
But now Garland has become a lightning rod for conservative fury, accused by Trump and his allies of spearheading a politically motivated plot to undermine his chances of running for a second term in 2024.
“[Garland] he’s up against a former president of the United States who still has a large following, full of conspiracy theorists. He’s had to proceed very cautiously,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s government studies program.
“He’s not talking about it. He didn’t ask the White House for permission. He just played it very, very straight, which is his reputation,” he added.
The attorney general had been aware for months that the former president was keeping documents at Mar-a-Lago from his time in the White House, including some that were highly classified. Garland tasked top prosecutors with persuading Trump’s lawyers to release them, first voluntarily and then by subpoena.
After those efforts failed, Garland authorized the request for a search warrant, but refrained from speaking publicly about the Mar-a-Lago attack on the day it occurred. It has only done so once since then, though without delving into the depth of the probe.
“Much of our work is done by necessity out of the public eye. We do it to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and to protect the integrity of our investigations,” he said.
In recent days, however, Justice Department court documents have laid bare the seriousness of Trump’s potential violations of the law, invoking provisions related to obstruction of justice and mishandling of critical security information. national under the Espionage Act. They have also revealed the broad nature of the investigation, which includes more than one witness.
Garland, who helped secure the convictions of Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh and domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski in the 1990s as U.S. attorney and served 24 years on the federal appeals court in Washington DC, will want to secure the case to file a criminal indictment of Trump. it is shielded before taking the next step, which would be to ask for charges.
“I think right now what they’re doing is they’re probably going through the evidence, figuring out what [Trump] had exactly . . and figure out if they need to go investigate other angles, other people,” said Kel McClanahan, a national security attorney and professor at George Washington University. “This is being done as a mob investigation, as an investigation of the organized crime”.
The search of Trump’s home has turned Garland, as well as the DoJ and the FBI in general, into villains in the eyes of the right, increasing public pressure on the attorney general and raising security concerns for prosecutors, officials and agents working on the case. .
“Fire Merrick Garland, destroy the DoJ, fire the corrupt FBI and fire Biden. Armed law enforcement is communism and has no place in America,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, said in a tweet on Monday and one of Trump’s closest allies on the far right.
Other Republicans, including the House Judiciary Committee, have asked Garland to preserve his own documents related to the search and be prepared for an investigation of his actions if they regain control of the lower house of Congress in November.
But Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by Barack Obama but denied a confirmation hearing by Senate Republicans, has so far appeared to resist the pressure. “The attorney general is in an extremely difficult position,” said Aziz Huq, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Chicago.
“I think what the Justice Department and Garland have tried to do . . . is demonstrate the legalistic good faith of the Justice Department at a time when that good faith has come under tremendous strain,” he added.
If Garland avoids indicting Trump, whether over the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago or his role in the Jan. 6 riot, his legacy may end up being that of the attorney general who blinked while challenging the misconduct of a former president But moving forward with a prosecution, even an eventual success, is not without risks in a country as deeply divided as the United States.
“He has an obligation to uphold the law. But he obviously understood the enormous political ramifications and is a very careful person,” Kamarck told the Brookings Institution. “Why should you open a hornet’s nest like this unless you have some serious crime in mind?”