For the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, liberals and Trump critics who wanted to see him punished for criminal acts or substantial wrongdoing poured their hopes into then-special counsel Robert Mueller.
Now, watchdogs, Democratic lawmakers and Trump opponents all have their eyes on Attorney General Merrick Garland as his Justice Department ramps up its investigation into the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.
“I think all eyes are on Garland in the same way as they were on Mueller, with the major difference, of course, that Mueller had no power to criminally prosecute,” said Eli Merritt, an author and political historian at Vanderbilt University.
Another key difference between the Mueller special counsel probe and the ongoing Justice Department investigation, experts said, is how public the evidence in the Jan. 6 probe is compared to the 2016 Russia investigation.
Mueller’s investigation was conducted largely out of public view. The voters’ knowledge of his findings was largely limited to news reports and a drip-drip of guilty pleas and indictments involving Trump associates.
The public ultimately learned of key details of the investigation in 2019, when Mueller issued his final report laying out instances where Trump may have obstructed justice, though he ultimately did not definitively say the president committed a crime.
Meanwhile, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots recently wrapped up its first round of public hearings, during which it methodically illustrated how Trump spread falsehoods about the 2020 election, encouraged his supporters to come to Washington and then refused to call them off as they descended on the Capitol.
“I think there’s no doubt that the evidence and testimony that’s been presented by the committee has increased the appetite for the public for accountability and for prosecutions. We’ve seen a steady increase in interest,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of the Defend Democracy Project.
Mueller’s final report, which did find evidence of collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia but did not spell out that Trump should be charged with obstruction of justice, was ultimately deflating for many liberals who had spent months building up the special counsel’s investigation as one that could bring down the president.
Now, despite the risk of another disappointment, some liberals are again publicly suggesting there is enough evidence for Garland to target Trump in his investigation.
“Now that the summer season of the January 6 Committee’s hearings is over, it’s time to tell AG Garland he has NO CHOICE but to INDICT the former president,” tweeted Laurence Tribe, a left-leaning legal scholar and frequent Trump critic.
“NOT indicting Trump amounts to giving him an unearned PARDON,” Tribe added. “Handing out pardons isn’t within any AG’s job description.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the Jan. 6 committee, said on CBS last week, “Attorney General Garland has committed to following the facts and evidence wherever they lead. They’ve led to Donald J. Trump.”
A coalition of progressive groups earlier this month asked Justice Department to explain its internal policies on the question of whether presidents can be charged with a crime, worrying that the agency would limit itself from directly charging Trump if they found he acted illegally around Jan. 6.
“The Attorney General’s role is to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, which speaks to setting long-term politics aside,” Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president at Public Citizen, one of the groups that signed onto the letter, said in a statement.
“We know Attorney General Garland is dedicated to that task, and we have confidence in the Justice Department to move appropriately as the avalanche of evidence surrounding the January 6th perpetrators continues to grow.”
“We intend to hold everyone, anyone who was criminally responsible for the events surrounding Jan. 6, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another, accountable,” Garland said this week. “That’s what we do. We don’t pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.”
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the department is investigating Trump’s action as part of its criminal probe, subpoenaing phone records of those across the country who aided in his false elector scheme, as well as other efforts to stay in power.
While the Justice Department investigation plays out, some watchdog groups and Trump critics remain optimistic that the former president will be held accountable regardless of how Garland decides to proceed.
They point to an ongoing probe in Georgia, where investigators are focusing on efforts to pressure state officials to change the outcome of the 2020 election there, as another area where Trump could face legal jeopardy.
The New York attorney general is also investigating Trump’s business dealings, and the D.C. attorney general is still looking into Trump’s inaugural committee’s finances.
Woodhouse, the head of the Defend Democracy Project who has led other Democratic groups, also argued that the Jan. 6 committee has already done significant work to hold Trump accountable by presenting evidence into the court of public opinion.
A survey released last week from PBS NewsHour-NPR-Marist poll found that 50 percent of respondents believed Trump should be charged with crimes, though just 28 percent believe he ultimately will be.
No former U.S. president has ever been criminally charged.
The poll also found 58 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Trump, including 63 percent of independents.
“These hearings, this investigation, the testimony and evidence that’s been presented in public has been wildly successful. It has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Woodhouse said.
“In my view, Donald Trump has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion regardless of whether he’s tried and convicted in a criminal court,” he added.