Dual system of silence? Garland, Wray clam up on Trump search after blabbing about Jan. 6 probe
Republicans see a double standard even in how and when DOJ officials talk about ongoing probes.
Stoic like a judge delivering a verdict from the bench, Attorney General Merrick Garland declared Thursday he was playing things by the book and wouldn't talk about the raid and ongoing investigation of former President Donald Trump.
"The Department of Justice will speak through its court filings and its work," he said, declining to answer any of the multitude of questions Americans have, except that he approved the Monday raid on the 45th president's home and doesn't object to releasing the search warrant.
Garland, however, was hardly as tight-lipped about the other major ongoing investigation that has consumed his department: the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
In testimony, speeches and news interviews he has talked expansively about the nature of the probe, the forced collections of evidence and who and how many are being investigated — even as many defendants have not yet had their day in court.
Usually, it is taboo for federal prosecutors to talk about anything related to grand juries. But in his one-year anniversary speech, Garland gave the total number of grand jury subpoenas and search warrants executed, the amount of video footage collected, and the number of electronic devices seized through warrants and subpoenas. It was a rare moment of transparency in an evidence collection process normally shrouded in the same secrecy as the raid on Trump's home and office.
"So far, we have issued over 5,000 subpoenas and search warrants, seized approximately 2,000 devices, pored through over 20,000 hours of video footage, and searched through an estimated 15 terabytes of data," he divulged during the Jan. 5, 2022 speech.
Ordinarily, prosecutors demur when facing questions about who could be charged in the future, refusing to address specific names then offering a generic answer about policy and procedure.
But last month in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, Garland bit on the question of whether Trump could be charged in the Capitol riots case, failing to offer the traditional disclaimer that he wouldn't talk about specific future defendants.
"The indictment of a former president, and perhaps a candidate for president, would arguably tear the country apart," Holt said. "Is that your concern as you make your decision down the road here, do you have to think about things like that?"
Garland replied: "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. That's what we do. We don't pay any attention to other issues with respect to that."
Holt followed up: What if Trump ran against Biden in 2024?
"I'll say again that we will hold accountable anyone who was criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the transfer, legitimate, lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next," he answered.
The anecdotes aren't to suggest Garland did something illegal or improper. But they do show that DOJ officials have discretion beyond the courtroom to talk expansively about ongoing probes despite Garland's claim Thursday that he was constrained from sharing any information about the Trump raid.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has done something similar, repeatedly declining to answer questions about the investigation of Hunter Biden and the bureau's seizure of his laptop.
"Now you are asking about an ongoing investigation that I expect our folks to pursue aggressively, and I can't comment on it," he answered when questioned by Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn about pursuing Hunter Biden charges.
When she followed up and asked him to confirm the possession of the younger Biden's laptop, he demurred again, even though the laptop's seizure and the subpoena are now in public.
"Again I can't discuss that," he said, citing the ongoing investigation.
But a year earlier in a Senate hearing, Wray gave a more detailed answer just two months into the Jan. 6 probe when asked by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar whether the Proud Boys groups had criminal culpability for the Jan. 6 riots. At the time, some Proud Boy members had been charged, and some were still under early investigation.
Wray acknowledged some parts of the attack "were planned and coordinated."
"Well, I just noted that just today, a report in The Washington Post, that on Monday, a complaint was filed against a member of the Proud Boys in Washington State, where federal prosecutors alleged that, in fact, there were plans made for many different entries into the Capitol, is that correct?" she asked.
In answering, Wray revealed there were going to be changes to indictments and more arrests related to the group, something that wasn't then public.
"Yes, there have been a growing number of charges as we continue to build out the investigation," Wray said, mentioning "either individuals who are now starting to get arrested ... or in some instances individuals who were charged with more simple offenses but now we're superseding as we build out more of an understanding of what people were involved."
Again, nothing illegal. But clear evidence that a Republican got a non-answer from Wray about an ongoing probe, while a Democrat got more robust detail and responsiveness.
The performances of Wray and Garland have drawn indignation from some Republicans, who have dozens of oversight letters seeking answers that have gone unanswered.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week the continued silence from the top of the DOJ and FBI risks ruining their trust with the American people, especially after the Trump raid and recent whistleblower allegations of political bias inside investigations.
"If the FBI isn't extraordinarily transparent about its justification for yesterday's actions and committed to rooting out political bias that has infected their most sensitive investigations, they will have sealed their own fate," the seven-term senator warned Tuesday.