A day after a federal jury convicted two far-right extremists of leading a plot to unleash political violence to prevent the inauguration of Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed that his Justice Department would continue to “work tirelessly” to hold accountable those responsible for efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Garland praises Oath Keepers verdict, won’t say where Jan. 6 probe goes
Throughout the trial, prosecutors highlighted the defendants’ links to key allies of President Donald Trump, such as Roger Stone, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani.
But Garland declined to say Wednesday if he expected prosecutors to eventually file charges against them or any other people who did not physically participate in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I don’t want to speculate on other investigations or parts of other investigations,” Garland told reporters at a briefing where he also touted Justice Department efforts to establish federal oversight of the water supply system in Jackson, Miss.
Garland called the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation, and Jackson’s water crisis, “significant matters of public interest.”
“I’m very proud of the attorneys, investigators and staff whose unwavering commitment to rule of law and tireless work resulted in yesterday in these two significant victories,” he said.
Tuesday’s verdicts upheld a key Justice Department argument laid out in the seven-week-long trial: that the breach of the Capitol was not an isolated event, but rather a culmination or component of wider plotting by extremists who wanted to stop the transfer of power from Trump to Biden. In this case, the jury found Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and a top deputy, Kelly Meggs, at least partially responsible for staging firearms and preparing to forcibly oppose federal authority. Both were convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” a rarely used charge that is among the most serious levied so far in the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation.
Justice Department officials had been eyeing the Oath Keepers verdict to help decide whether to file criminal charges against other high-profile, pro-Trump figures who had roles in the buildup to the violence, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.
The people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said prosecutors will also consider the outcome of an upcoming trial involving members of another extremist group, the Proud Boys, scheduled to start in mid-December.
At the briefing with reporters Tuesday, Garland also said that he has asked the House Jan. 6 committee — which has been pursuing a separate investigation into the attack — for all interview transcripts and evidence that it has collected. That’s long been a point of tension between the Justice Department and Congress, with the committee yet to hand over all the materials.
“We would like to have all the transcripts and all the other evidence collected by the committee so that we can use it in the ordinary course of our investigation,” Garland said.
After Trump announced in mid-November that he would run for president in 2024, Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee investigations related to Trump and his advisers after he lost the 2020 election, as well as a separate investigation of Trump’s possession of classified documents after he left the White House.
Defined in the law as an effort by two or more people to “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” or to forcibly oppose its authority or laws, seditious conspiracy is rarely charged. Prosecutors often view it as difficult to prove at trial, particularly when other, simpler crimes can be charged for the same conduct.
Praveen Fernandes, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center — a liberal think tank and law firm that had been closely tracking the Rhodes trial — said the guilty verdict is significant.
“It’s not just a delivery of justice in respect to Rhodes and Kelly Meggs — but it is a sign that a jury was able to understand what happened that day as seditious conspiracy,” Fernandes said. “It at least opens up a universe that says it is at least possible to secure such a conviction on acts that led up to Jan. 6.”
But legal experts also warned that the verdict wasn’t a slam-dunk for the government, highlighting how difficult seditious conspiracy cases are to pursue. Three other Oath Keeper associates who were on trial were acquitted on the sedition charges. All five defendants were found guilty of obstructing Congress as members met on Jan. 6 to confirm the results of the 2020 election, a key step in the country’s peaceful transfer of power.
In deciding the seditious conspiracy charge, jurors appeared to focus on written or recorded evidence of conspiratorial intent, a warning sign for prosecutors that the threshold to convict people on this rare charge is high.
Rhodes attorney James Lee Bright said he expects the Justice Department nevertheless to take the mixed verdict as a sign to move “full-steam ahead” with prosecutions against others allegedly involved in the planning of what unfolded on Jan. 6.
The federal prosecutors at Rhodes’ trial made clear that Stone, a long-serving political adviser to Trump who has consistently denied any knowledge of or involvement in illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6, was a focus of inquiry, introducing evidence they said the government obtained from his phone in December 2021.
On the day that television networks declared Biden had won the election, prosecutors alleged, Rhodes shared a text with Stone, Alexander and Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and others asking: “What’s the plan?”
They also alleged that Rhodes shared a plan with that same “Friends of Stone” encrypted chat group that included bullet points from an anti-government uprising in Serbia that included storming its parliament.
Rhodes also wrote public letters to Trump, urging him to invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military and private militia to ensure he remained in power.
But attorneys for people who worked for Trump, and other Oath Keepers members, expressed skepticism that Trump received or acted on those messages.
“Of the 10 terabytes of evidence that we’ve had available to us in this trial, I can tell you that there is nothing in the body of evidence that we’ve been given or shown that would in any way be indicative of the ability to indict former president Trump for January 6th,” Bright, one of Rhodes’ attorneys, told reporters after Tuesday’s verdict.
On Wednesday, Garland said that the work of Justice Department attorneys in securing the guilty verdicts “makes clear the department will work tirelessly to hold account those responsible for crimes related to attacks on our democracy on Jan 2021.”