In any of the countless iterations of Law & Order, time is compressed into bite-sized chunks of plot that typically move the perp from arrest to trial to conviction, all in a single hour.
While we understand, deep down, that real life doesn’t work that way, their portrayal of “the criminal justice system” plays directly into our societal need for instant gratification. We expect the wheels of justice to be far better lubricated than they actually are.
So while we all would have loved to see Trump and everyone connected to his administration led from the White House in handcuffs, patience is called for.
Merrick Garland has taken a lot of heat so far, mostly for not providing us with the gratification — and retribution — we crave, on the timetable we crave it. We need to cut him some slack.
Yes, we’ve been puzzled by a few eyebrow-raising actions taken by his DOJ in recent weeks. It kept secret some parts of Bill Barr’s internal memo about the Mueller report. It continued defending Trump in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation civil suit. It dismissed a lawsuit over the violent sweep-up of Lafayette Square for Trump’s bible-clutching photo op. Yes, we were duly distressed.
But according to a lengthy WaPo article of July 25, these and more actions can be explained — if not excused — in the context of a wounded department trying to heal itself after four years of wanton abuse. Garland’s approach to this healing is to restore, in meticulous detail, the norms and prerogatives of the U.S. attorneys who make up that department.
Seen in that light, their treatment of the Barr memo appears to be about reaffirming their ability to keep internal deliberations private, which is probably, in general, a good thing.
The Carroll lawsuit seems to be about protecting the ability of presidents to speak their minds freely. This is, presumably, a legitimate legal issue, but I'm guessing it's one Garland doesn’t want on his front burner right now. The case still goes forward. The government stays on the defense side. But how good a defense can that be, given that Trump — the world’s worst client — is the client? For now, Garland seems to be making an institutional point. But that will be an interesting suit to watch.
As for the Lafayette Square photo op, I’m guessing the case is not strong enough to be worth the prosecutors’ time.
Of course, none of this is clear, and the opacity of DOJ pronouncements is very much a part of what Garland wants to preserve. He and his department prefer to speak through their official actions — indictments, orders, opinions, subpoenas, etc. — period. Their public statements are rare, as they should be.
But lately they've created quite a stir. They just ordered Trump’s tax returns turned over to Congress, where forensic accountants have been waiting years to dissect them. They declined to defend Congressman Mo Brooks against any criminal charges he may face, as they seem unconvinced that inciting an insurrection is part of his — or any federal employee’s — job description.
But it’s the arrest of Tom Barrack that will get the most traction. He is one of Trump’s oldest business buddies. He knows where bodies are buried. And given the nature of friendship and loyalty in the Trump circle, it’s hard to imagine Barrack not cutting a plea deal. Which would be a staggering blow to Trump.
Because Barrack was knee-deep in two of the seedier scandals we’ve long known about. He was the guy running the 2017 inauguration, that thinly-veiled pay-to-play scam that could yet land Ivanka Trump in jail. But that’s not even what he was indicted for.
His big crimes involve his long and slimy business relationships in the Middle East. And when we finally find out what he and Jared Kushner were up to over there, our heads will surely spin. We can expect him to sing, and it won’t be a song Trump will like.
But the real center of Garland’s world — at least for now — is the 1/6 insurrection. It’s already generating the biggest caseload in the history of DOJ, with some 400 arrests and counting. This will keep dozens of prosecutors hopping for years.
It’s not just that each of these cases needs to be individually disposed of. It’s that many of the characters indicted are potential witnesses against somebody higher up the food chain. Wouldn’t we love the Oath Keepers to flip on Roger Stone? Wouldn’t we love first-person testimony against Mo Brooks, Rudy Giuliani, Alex Jones, Jim Jordan, and other swine? Wouldn’t we love to know which congressmen gave the guided tour of the Capitol the day before the riot?
But the insurrection barely scratches the surface of what Garland faces. The four years leading up to that event were an absolute orgy of criminality. Russian election meddling. Ukraine quid pro quos. Crooked cabinet secretaries. Corrupt congressmen. Election tampering. Emoluments of every shape and kind.
Garland’s prosecutors will have to perform a sort of triage, just to determine which of these cases gets the most bang for the buck.
And we hope they’ll keep their eyes on the real prize: Trump himself. Everyone they flip contributes to that case of all cases, the one that puts him away for good.
This will take time. There will be millions of documents and terabytes of data to seize and sift through. There will be many hundreds of witnesses to depose. The prosecutors will be working eighty-hour weeks, and it still won’t be enough. Most of the cases will plead out. A few will go to trial. Each of those trials will involve even more work to prepare and argue.
Yes, it’s frustratingly slow. Yes, the 2022 election is barreling toward us. Yes, we all feel a visceral dread of Trump and his toadies somehow wriggling free of accountability.
Which is why we want DOJ to be thorough. The last thing we want is to see any of these jerks go free on a technicality. It has certainly happened before.
Merrick Garland knows far more than we do about the rule of law. He needs time to properly restore it, and he’ll take all the time he needs.
I’m sure he understands our impatience. But I’m also sure he won’t be hurried.