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Opinion Forget what you heard. The DOJ’s Jan. 6 probe is moving at a good pace.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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For months, critics of the Justice Department’s investigation into the events of Jan. 6, 2021, have complained that prosecutors appeared to be focusing only on the rioters at the Capitol and not on higher-level targets. Then this week, we learned that over the past two months prosecutors have issued subpoenas to a number of individuals involved in planning, funding and executing the “Save America” rally, including people close to then-President Donald Trump. The response from the critics has been a mixture of professed relief that something is finally happening and continued complaints that the entire process is still moving too slowly.

I think these critics continue to have it wrong. All indications are that the Justice Department is pursuing this massive, unprecedented investigation methodically and aggressively. I’d argue that the progress has been impressively fast. And now, a little more than a year into the investigation, things are unfolding at an increasingly rapid clip.

There are hard truths behind the old saying about the wheels of justice grinding slowly. Large criminal investigations such as this involve the painstaking process of gathering massive amounts of evidence, assembling successful cases against lower-level participants, persuading them to cooperate, and using that to build progressively more serious cases against higher-level actors. Many of these steps involve reluctant defendants, defense attorneys, judges and court calendars, and they take time.

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All indications are that the Jan. 6 investigation is following this classic “up the ladder” model. Initially, we heard primarily about the prosecutions of hundreds of individual rioters. More recently, larger conspiracy indictments of members of the militia groups the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys brought more serious charges against individuals who played key roles in planning the assault on the Capitol. And now we have news of grand jury subpoenas directed at even higher-level targets, providing additional evidence of the investigative work that is going on out of public view. These are all signs of a large, complex investigation proceeding about as we should expect.

Hopes for fast action at the very top of the ladder were raised this week when U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, hearing a civil case involving efforts to obtain emails from former Trump attorney John Eastman, ruled that it was “more likely than not” Trump himself had committed crimes attempting to overturn the election. I’ve seen even some lawyers suggest that the Justice Department could now simply take the judge’s ruling to the grand jury and get an indictment next week. But that’s not how any of this works.

Sure, getting an indictment is relatively easy if that’s your only goal; the standard is only probable cause. But prosecutors may seek an indictment only if they believe they have evidence that would likely convince a unanimous jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a trial where that evidence would be subject to challenge and witnesses subject to cross-examination.

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Convincing a judge in a civil hearing that a crime “more likely than not” occurred is a walk in the park compared with convicting a defendant at trial. No competent prosecutor would claim that Carter’s ruling means they now have enough to indict. And Carter relied only on information already publicly available, not on some new bombshell evidence. So while his finding was noteworthy, it provides no basis for the Justice Department to abandon its methodical investigation and suddenly rush to indict.

The calls for the Justice Department to announce that it is investigating Trump are misplaced — because it has already done that. Attorney General Merrick Garland has repeatedly vowed to follow the facts concerning Jan. 6, 2021, wherever they lead and to hold accountable those responsible “at any level.” That by definition includes examining the actions of the one individual whose desperate attempt to cling to power was at the center of everything that happened.

The pace of the criminal investigation is understandably frustrating. But it’s commonplace for large, complex federal investigations to last for several years — and few if any have been as large or complex as this one. In a potential prosecution this consequential, the last thing we want is for the Justice Department to act hastily in response to public pressure, rather than taking the necessary time to do it right.

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