Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday defended the Justice Department’s efforts to prosecute those responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot last year.
In a prepared speech on the eve of the anniversary of the attack, Mr. Garland said “there is no higher priority” for the department.
“The Justice Department remains committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy,” he said. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead.”
The attorney general made the comments amid criticism that he and his investigators are focusing too much on rioters rather than those who instigated the attack.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, applauded efforts to charge rioters but said “make no mistake: until those who unleashed the mob are also held accountable, the risk of future attacks on our democracy will continue to grow.”
“It is crucial that we send a strong, clear message to the nation — and to the world — that those who incite violence against their fellow Americans will be held accountable,” said Mr. Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
SEE ALSO: Intel official: Capitol Police bosses ignored warnings of violence in days before Jan. 6
Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat, said during an interview with CNN on Tuesday that he thinks Mr. Garland’s response to the Capitol riot “has been extremely weak.”
“I think there should be a lot more of the organizers of Jan. 6 that should be arrested by now,” Mr. Gallego said. “This is why we need to have an active attorney general that can separate those that were doing political work from actual work helping the insurrection and/or the coup plotters.”
A few days earlier, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who now works as an MSNBC analyst, said Mr. Garland has yet to charge the most important perpetrator: former President Donald Trump.
“That’s where Merrick Garland is either going to rise to the occasion or go down in infamy as one of the worst attorney generals in this country’s history,” Ms. McCaskill said.
The attorney general insisted Wednesday that “in circumstances like those of Jan. 6, a full accounting does not suddenly materialize.”
“We resolve more straightforward cases first because they provide the evidentiary foundation for more complex cases,” Mr. Garland said. “Investigating the more overt crimes generates linkages to less-overt ones. Overt actors and the evidence they provide can lead us to others who may also have been involved. And that evidence can serve as the foundation for further investigative leads and techniques.”
SEE ALSO: Psaki says Biden’s Jan. 6 speech will address Trump role in riot
As of Wednesday, he said, 725 people had been arrested in connection with the attack. More than 325 of them are charged with felonies, including 20 who have pleaded guilty to felony charges.
Approximately 145, most of whom did not cause any injury or damage, have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. About 40 are charged with conspiracy to obstruct a congressional proceeding and/or obstruct law enforcement. In the upcoming months, 17 are set to go to trial on felony conspiracy charges.
Mr. Garland said the Justice Department will continue the investigation “as long as it takes … for justice to be done.”
“I understand that this may not be the answer some are looking for. But we will and we must speak through our work,” he said. “Anything else jeopardizes the viability of our investigations and the civil liberties of our citizens.”
He added that “there cannot be different rules depending on one’s political party or affiliation. There cannot be different rules for friends and foes. And there cannot be different rules for the powerful and the powerless.”
Republicans have accused the Justice Department of political bias for spending more time targeting right-leaning Jan. 6 rioters than left-leaning rioters who looted and set fires during the 2020 nationwide social justice protests.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said after Mr. Garland’s speech that “anyone who commits an act of political violence should be prosecuted, and anyone who assaults a law enforcement officer should go to jail for a very long time.”
Still, he said, “the political left inexplicably and unacceptably wants to treat left-wing political violence differently.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have scrutinized the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack over what they say is political partisanship.
As the Democratic-led committee prepares to go public with its findings, it has made little ground convincing Republican lawmakers that the investigation is anything more than a “partisan sham.”
“As we have said from the start, the actions of that day were lawless and as wrong as wrong can be,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said in a letter to House Republicans this week. “Our Capitol should never be compromised, and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability.”
The committee has issued sweeping demands for White House documents from the Trump administration and began issuing subpoenas to key Trump allies. Three of them have been charged with contempt of Congress for failing to comply.
Mr. Trump has fought the release of the documents, citing executive privilege, and several witnesses have leaned on the former president’s legal claims as grounds to stonewall the investigation.
One year since the attack and six months into Congress’ investigation, Mr. McCarthy said that “the majority party seems no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again.”
“Instead, they are using it as a partisan political weapon to further divide our country,” he said.