Merrick Garland faced up to some of the most critical and divisive issues facing America on Wednesday afternoon. In an address to his Department of Justice colleagues that was broadcast live to the country, he said he understood the urgency around Jan. 6 with a measured delivery that could be seen either as appropriately dispassionate or worrisomely listless.
But the punchline in either case remains the same. Garland promises to do the right thing when it comes to holding the powerful accountable for their attacks on our democracy—and we are just going to have to wait and see if the Department of Justice’s actions live up to the attorney general’s carefully chosen words.
Garland clearly understands the threats American democracy faces. While he still appeared to be more jurist than the head of America’s largest law enforcement agency, he nonetheless made his contempt clear for those behind the Jan. 6 attack, for the escalating threats of violence to American officials at every level of government, and for the systematic attacks on voting rights that have been going on for years.
Indeed, his unhappiness with Supreme Court decisions (such as Shelby County v. Holder, which he specifically cited) diluting the Voting Rights Act was palpable. It was also clear he understands the expectations of those who seek punishment not only for the members of the mob that attacked on Jan. 6 but for those who instigated, planned and paid for the attack.
The very fact he delivered the remarks reflects that he is sensing the growing frustrations about the slowness of the Justice Department in holding accountable the people behind the coup attempt. He said the right words about the processes being followed and made it clear that his department was not only following its guidelines to ensure just outcomes but the best practices required if solid cases are to be built.
He made clear his intent was to pursue the facts wherever they may lead with a directness that might have triggered chills in Trump’s inner circle. He promised in no uncertain terms to hold the powerful to account. With each of these statements, it was clear he was not only articulating his objectives and those of his colleagues but also asking the public for patience, seeking to assure citizens that he and his team were proceeding the only way they could or should be.
In short, he said, judge us by our actions.
It is a reasonable request. If those actions ultimately demonstrate the attorney general’s resolve and the commitment of the DoJ to bring Trump and those around him to justice—as facts already in evidence clearly indicate must be done—then this speech should someday be seen as a useful placeholder, a stark framing of some of the great challenges of this moment and a well-grounded mission statement.
But of course, for all the merits of the address and the specific instances of progress which Garland enumerated, until the attorney general’s promises lead to actions, unease and frustration will remain. Because, of course, should this Department of Justice come up short, we will not know it until it is too late.
On Thursday, President Biden will speak on the anniversary of last year’s shocking and tragic events. His decision to do so is a sign that he recognizes that, like it or not, one of the key measures by which history will judge his administration is whether they found a way to rebuff the attacks on our democratic system and ultimately bring those who threatened that system— including the former president and those close to him—to justice.
On this pivotal issue, it is now up to Garland and his team to deliver.
One sign of whether Garland will do so will be whether he allows the statute of limitations on the Mueller counts of obstruction against Trump to expire—which they will start to do in a matter of weeks, as Yale scholar and former FBI agent Asha Rangappa lays out here. If Garland takes no action on these compelling charges, that will be deeply worrisome.
How Garland handles any charges referred to Justice by Congress will be another indicator of whether the key elements of today's speech were merely words or something more meaningful.
The longer Garland waits, the closer we may be to a GOP administration that could stop prosecution or pardon wrongdoing. Every day that this administration waits to act invites further GOP mischief.
One aspect of Garland’s speech was worrisome in this respect. When speaking of an increase in violence and threats of violence directed at public servants, Garland said that no one political party or group was responsible for this rise in dangerous incivility. That's just not true.
It is very clear Trump and the right have driven this trend, and this is an instance in which Garland's welcome instinct to remain non-partisan led him to distort the truth.
Garland's words were thoughtful, grounded in best practices, clearly delivered and made more credible by the litany of substantive achievements and metrics of progress they enumerated.
Now, it’s a question of deeds, and the actions he decides to take, or not, may well determine whether our democracy itself survives.