Let’s begin with Garland, who will always be a walking reminder of GOP procedural radicalism. Had Senate Republicans not held open a vacant Supreme Court seat for most of 2016, he’d be on the court as we speak.
And now, Jan. 6 — another manifestation of Republican radicalism — hangs over Garland’s nomination.
It’s often mentioned that Garland supervised the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. But it’s important to remember that the bombing was not simply a random act of rage; as Garland said in his opening statement, the perpetrators “sought to spark a revolution that would topple the federal government.”
Which was exactly what the Capitol Hill mob was trying to do. And we’ll continue to grapple with it, because the lie that drove them there still has the GOP in its grip.
For Garland, this will mean focusing the Justice Department on the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack. Here’s something he said at his hearing in response to a question about it:
I intend to give the career prosecutors who are working on this matter 24/7 all the resources they could possibly require to do this, and at the same time I intend to make sure that we look more broadly, to look at where this is coming from, what other groups there might be that could raise the same problem in the future, that we protect the American people.
In other words, it isn’t enough to just prosecute as many people as we can find who committed crimes on Jan. 6. Locating and investigating other groups that might pose a similar threat (or worse) means investigating supporters of Trump — just a portion of them, of course, but the portion who believe so strongly in the stolen-election lie that they are willing to commit acts of violence and insurrection.
That lie, furthermore, continues to be propagated by Trump and current Republican officeholders, and is disseminated through conservative media outlets. The point is not that Garland will investigate the likes of Sean Hannity and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), but that the Justice Department’s investigations will drive right into their rhetoric and ambitions, which means the investigations will be entangled with the broader mission of reducing the hold that Trump-related controversies have on GOP voters — potentially for years.
And there’s another thorny question Garland may eventually have to confront: What should the Justice Department do about Trump himself?
Now that the Supreme Court has made it possible for the Manhattan district attorney to get eight years of Trump’s tax returns, a chain of events is likely to ensue that would put at least one part of Trump’s fate directly in Garland’s hands.
The district attorney’s investigation stems in part from the $130,000 paid by Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels to buy her silence, money Trump later reimbursed Cohen. The arrangement may have violated a number of laws; it was part of the reason Cohen went to prison.
It’s possible Trump committed both state crimes and federal crimes in that case, including possibly deducting the reimbursement to Cohen as a business expense, which could constitute tax fraud. (It appears that the reimbursements were designed to be disguised as legal fees.)
In addition, Cohen testified to Congress that Trump routinely undervalued his properties in tax filings, then overvalued them in documents given to banks when seeking loans, potentially committing both tax fraud and bank fraud.
It’s hard to imagine that a careful forensic examination of the returns Trump fought so hard to keep secret won’t reveal violations of law, even if they’re the kind of thing that can be resolved with a hefty fine. After all, his own lawyers said that if the returns were revealed it would cause him “irreparable harm,” and not because they’d show what a successful businessman he was.
In fact, the universal assumption among both his opponents and supporters has been that if the returns became public, it would be a political catastrophe for Trump. The only question was whether the information revealed would merely be scandalous or would show outright criminality.
Let’s also not forget that in 2018 the New York Times published a blockbuster report, based on Fred Trump’s business records, which showed that the Trump family engaged in what could be one of the largest tax-fraud schemes in American history, defrauding the U.S. government of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
The statute of limitations on that scheme, which took place in the 1990s, has run out. But Trump could still be on the hook for more recent crimes.
The Manhattan district attorney’s investigation will take some time, so it will likely be a while before Garland has to decide whether Trump’s financial records show enough evidence of federal crimes that he must be prosecuted. And as much as Garland promises to keep politics out of the Justice Department’s activities, there will be no way to escape the political implications, no matter what decision he and prosecutors ultimately make.
All of which shows that as much as we’d like to be rid of Trump, cleansing ourselves of all he was and all he did will take years.