US Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised to ensure justice and accountability for the January 6 Capitol riot, as investigations continue ahead of the one-year anniversary of the deadly attack.
In a news conference on Wednesday, Garland said the US Justice Department will not relent in prosecuting people who broke the law during what he described as an “unprecedented attack” on United States democracy.
Ongoing probes into the events of January 6, 2021, will go on “as long as it takes and whatever it takes for justice to be done”, Garland said. “Those involved must be held accountable. And there is no higher priority for us at the Department of Justice.”
The attorney general, who serves as the nation’s top federal prosecutor, also pledged to crack down on violence and threats of violence in public discourse more broadly while upholding the right to free speech.
“We do not investigate or prosecute people because of their views,” he told reporters. “Peacefully expressing a view or ideology – no matter how extreme – is protected by the First Amendment. But illegally threatening to harm or kill another person is not.”
Garland said the Justice Department has charged more than 725 defendants in relation to the events of January 6 last year. The most severe charges have been reserved for people accused of assaulting police officers and of being involved in planning to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, he explained.
“By now, though, we have charged over 325 defendants with felonies – many for assaulting officers, and many for corruptly obstructing, or attempting to obstruct an official proceeding,” Garland said. “Twenty defendants charged with felonies have already pled guilty.”
A mob of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC, on January 6 after the former US president delivered an incendiary speech not far from the White House earlier in the day.
For weeks, Trump had falsely claimed the US presidential election was marred by widespread fraud, and he urged his supporters to “fight like hell” hours before the riot erupted. The US House of Representatives later impeached the Republican leader for “incitement of insurrection“.
Five people died during the January 6 attack, including a Trump supporter who was shot by a law enforcement officer after attempting to cross into a restricted area inside the Capitol. A police officer also suffered a fatal heart attack after confronting the rioters.
Steve Clemons, host of Al Jazeera’s The Bottom Line programme, said “everything is politically toxic” in the US ahead of the anniversary of the Capitol assault.
He said testimonials about what took place that day have been extremely moving and evidence of “a national ulcer that still has not been solved”.
The head of the US Capitol Police, J Thomas Manger, testified in front of a US Senate committee on Wednesday as part of its ongoing hearings into oversight of US Capitol Police following the January 6 attack.
“To look at the visuals of police officers being thrown up against the wall, pinned against the wall, maced in the face, beaten with bats and sticks, it’s extraordinary. It’s never happened in modern, American history,” said Clemons, adding however that “a good chunk of Americans are not paying attention”.
Aside from criminal probes by the Justice Department, a congressional panel is investigating the riot. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been zeroing in on many of Trump’s associates, seeking documents and testimonies.
On Tuesday, the panel formally requested the cooperation of conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity over text messages he had exchanged with White House aides after the November 2020 elections.
“You appear to have factual information directly relevant to the events of January 6th and the attack on the institutions of our democracy,” the committee’s leaders said in a letter to Hannity. “We have a duty to understand all of the underlying facts, and make legislative recommendations.”