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The Justice Department Just Answered Its Critics With a Grand Jury Investigation of Jan. 6

The Justice Department Just Answered Its Critics With a Grand Jury Investigation of Jan. 6
Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the past two months, and beneath public and press radar, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. quietly has been issuing subpoena requests to officials including some in former President Trump’s orbit as it investigates how the January 6 rally was planned, funded and executed, according to reporting by The Washington Post. And per The New York Times on the same grand jury news, the Justice Department investigation now encompasses the possible involvement of government officials in Trump’s attempts to stop or delay the certification of the electoral count, as well as the push by some Trump allies to promote slates of fake electors. One of the subpoenas reviewed by the Times sought information about people “classified as VIP attendees” at Trump’s January 6th rally.

That is a stunning development in the larger investigation by the Department of the insurrection at the Capitol. It represents an important broadening of the federal investigation to include organizers and public officials who may have participated in a corrupt plot to obstruct the electoral count and a conspiracy to defraud the United States and overturn the election.

For just over a year, the public investigations have focused on those who participated directly physically in the attack on the Capitol itself. The Department methodically made arrests and leveled charges that brought them cooperating witnesses and critical information, such as the motivations of the attackers and what drove them ultimately to storm the building. But many of the resulting sentences that were meted out felt like mere slaps on the wrist to a public that has grown increasingly frustrated at the pace of justice and the seeming lack of real accountability.

Then, more recently, a series of indictments were issued for top organizers of the violent assault. These included Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers and then later Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys, who was charged with conspiracy even though he was not physically present that day. For some of these top leaders, the complaint included the very serious and rare charge of seditious conspiracy, meaning a plot to overthrow or attack the government of the United States by use of force, which carries up to 20 years in prison. The Justice Department then quickly obtained its first guilty plea on seditious conspiracy from Oath Keeper member Joshua James in exchange for his cooperation. The investigations and indictments came as something of a surprise and were a testament to the Department’s ability to keep its work wholly under wraps.

Now the government, perhaps to relieve some of the public pressure on Attorney General Garland, has quietly let it be known that there is indeed a federal grand jury conducting an investigation of political higher-ups, including some close to or even perhaps within Trump’s inner circle. As the Post observed, “The development shows the degree to which the Justice Department investigation—which already involves more defendants than any other criminal prosecution in the nation’s history—has moved further beyond the storming of the Capitol to examine events preceding the attack.”

Two organizations in particular—Women for America First, which organized the March for Trump rally at the Ellipse, and Stop the Steal, organized by radical right-wing agitator Ali Alexander—are likely of particular interest to the grand jury. The leaders of WAF had direct communication with top Trump aides such as Mark Meadows and campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson, with allegations by others that some communications were conducted via so-called “burner phones” that could not be traced. Ali Alexander has alleged ties to several Trump allies including Roger Stone and Freedom Caucus congressmembers. Both Pierson and Alexander have testified before the January 6 Committee.

It isn’t known yet whether there is a direct connection between those accused of seditious conspiracy and those who participated in the planning of the rally with members of Trump’s team. But there are some interesting threads that the Justice Department likely will follow. For example, it now appears Roger Stone, a convicted but pardoned felon and close ally of the former president, was involved with the violent organizers. As I wrote about earlier, Stone was in regular communication with leaders from far-right groups and even had personal bodyguards assigned to him from those organizations. Convicted seditious conspirator Joshua James was even physically present with Stone in his room at the Willard Hotel just hours before the attack on the Capitol and, as the Washington Post reported, documentary film crew footage shows that Stone was in communication with both Tarrio and Rhodes using an encrypted messaging application.

Aside from the evidence that some within Trump’s inner circle may have been in cahoots with the violent organizers of the attack, there is also well-documented evidence that there was widespread knowledge of and participation in the “soft coup” outlined in the infamous John Eastman memo. Earlier this week, a federal judge found for the first time that the former president likely committed the felonies of obstruction of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the United States based on his and his team’s efforts to execute the Eastman plan, including various attempts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to illegally declare the election for Trump. If, as the judge concluded, the plot within the White House was a coup in search of a legal theory, and that theory in turn was patently unconstitutional and illegal, then everyone who participated in the coup attempt from the former president on down may be facing legal jeopardy.

Attorney General Garland has vowed to pursue the facts as far as they take his department, no matter how high up. “We follow the physical evidence. We follow the digital evidence. We follow the money,” Garland said. “But most important, we follow the facts—not an agenda or an assumption. The facts tell us where to go next.”

At least one thing is now at least very clear, especially with the Department’s recent budget request to hire another 131 prosecutors to help handle the biggest case in the Department’s history: The investigation of January 6 is expanding in scope rather than narrowing. The Department has now turned the volume of its case up a notch and its inquiry up several levels to the very organizers and government officials who had the most to gain from an obstruction of the vote count.

It’s often forgotten that Watergate, the last big case involving allegations of White House criminality, took some two years from the initial hotel break-in to Nixon’s resignation, and another more than two years after that to wrap up, with 69 people indicted and 48 people including many top Nixon administration officials convicted. One year and some three months in on January 6, which is a far larger and more complex case, the investigation has already yielded some key indictments and convictions as the Department works its way up.

More are likely to come.

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