“I certainly agree that we are facing a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City and at that time,” Garland said. He added that his “first priority” as attorney general would be to carry forward a broad investigation of the violent insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
As you may know, Garland helped oversee prosecutions on the Oklahoma City bombing case as a senior Justice Department official. His allies told The Post that this equips him extremely well for the current moment.
And it is a fraught moment indeed: It will require not just investigating that attack but also carrying out the broader effort to confront violent right-wing domestic extremism that Biden has commissioned, which will involve the Justice Department.
So is Garland right? Is the violent right-wing domestic extremism threat “more dangerous” now than in the mid-1990s?
For an answer, I checked in with Daryl Johnson, the analyst who famously got pushed out of the Obama administration when conservatives erupted in outrage after he authored a leaked Department of Homeland Security report warning of a rise in right-wing-extremist activity.
Johnson says he agrees that this moment is more dangerous than the mid-1990s, for several reasons. First, Johnson noted, there has been a far longer period of gestation for far-right groups.
“Leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing, we had about three years of growth with these groups,” said Johnson, who now runs a consulting firm that studies far-right extremism. “This time, they’ve been growing for over 10 years.”
As Johnson pointed out, many of the militia groups in the mid 1990s had been radicalized by federal standoffs in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which happened in the early 1990s, only a few years earlier. By contrast, Johnson said, much of the recent wave of far-right radicalization began with the election of Barack Obama 12 years ago.
Which brings up a second big difference: Since then, these violent domestic extremist groups enjoyed what they saw as a kindred spirit in a U.S. president, that is, one Donald Trump.
What’s more, that president — Trump — spent months fueling the Big Lie that has proved energizing to these groups, the lie that the election was stolen from him. This is highly unusual, Johnson said, noting there wasn’t any such parallel when George H.W. Bush was president.
“That’s created a more dangerous environment,” Johnson told me. “Those beliefs are still persistent, whether the president’s still in office or not.”
Supporting this possibility, a recent New York Times examination of indictments related to the storming of the Capitol showed a non-trivial number of perpetrators linked to far-right groups, such as the extremist Proud Boys and the anti-government, self-styled militia group Oath Keepers.
And two researchers writing for the Atlantic found that many people charged with the violence cited Trump’s lie about the election as a motivator. It’s reasonable to suspect this will persist: Current intelligence officials have predicted that the continued simmering of the lie about the election’s illegitimacy threatens to inspire future violence.
On another front, asked whether he would support changes to the law that would expand the authority of law enforcement to target domestic terrorism, Garland sidestepped the question.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. As civil liberties groups have noted, an expansion of legal authority is probably not necessary, given that there are plenty of existing statutes that enable the targeting of violent right-wing extremists. And an enormous challenge Garland and law enforcement face will be undertaking the necessary crackdowns without overreaching.
Any overreach could play into efforts by right-wing commentators to claim that under Biden, law enforcement is targeting conservatives far more broadly. Such claims are in bad faith, but it is absolutely crucial that the administration avoid, at all costs, using intelligence or law enforcement to denigrate or go after legitimate right-wing political activity, radicalizing more people.
Here’s the bottom line: The path lying ahead for the administration — and for Garland — is incredibly perilous, and it is likely to be long.
“At a minimum you have the four years that Biden is going to be in power, and these groups will continue to grow and radicalize,” Johnson told me, adding that efforts to liberalize immigration and tighten gun restrictions, among other things, would exacerbate the problem.
Indeed, Johnson suggested the problem would be with us for “more like 10 years.” So Garland may have navigated this terrain before, but there’s no telling whether he’s prepared for just how treacherous it could prove this time around.