Justice Dept. Open to Pursuing Charges Against Trump in Inciting Riot
"The top federal prosecutor in Washington said investigators were examining anyone involved, “not only the people who went into” the Capitol.
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said on Thursday that it would not rule out pursuing charges against President Trump for his possible role in inciting the mob that marched to the Capitol, overwhelmed officers and stormed the building a day earlier.
“We are looking at all actors, not only the people who went into the building,” Michael Sherwin, the U.S. attorney in Washington, told reporters.
Mr. Sherwin was asked whether such targets would include Mr. Trump, who exhorted supporters during a rally near the White House, telling them that they could never “take back our country with weakness.” Propelled by Mr. Trump’s baseless claims of election irregularities, the protesters had gathered to demonstrate against Congress’s certification of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Electoral College victory and moved on to the Capitol after the president’s rally.
Mr. Sherwin said he stood by his statement. “We’re looking at all actors,” he said. “If the evidence fits the elements of a crime, they’re going to be charged.”
His comments were an extraordinary invocation of the rule of law against a president who has counted on the Justice Department to advance his personal agenda, and they came as former Trump officials and others condemned Mr. Trump’s actions. Former cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Attorney General William P. Barr, once one of the president’s most important defenders, blamed him for Wednesday’s violence. Several officials resigned, and even some Republican lawmakers said Mr. Trump had gone too far.
The Justice Department generally asserts that sitting presidents cannot be charged with a crime, but that protection covers Mr. Trump for only 13 more days.
Mr. Biden, who has said he has no appetite to investigate and prosecute the Trump administration, unequivocally blamed Mr. Trump on Thursday for “trying to use a mob to silence the voices of nearly 160 million Americans” who voted in the presidential election.
He said that Mr. Trump had treated Mr. Barr and the Justice Department “as his personal lawyer and the department as his personal law firm,” and said that Judge Merrick B. Garland, his own nominee to be the next attorney general, would need to restore rule of law.
“There is no more important place for us to do this work than the Department of Justice that has been so politicized,” Mr. Biden said. “We need to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the Department of Justice in this nation that’s been so badly damaged.”
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The Justice Department faces the daunting task of prosecuting a large number of people who broke into the Capitol, since the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington acts as the main prosecutor for the District of Columbia.
Mr. Sherwin said his prosecutors and the city’s Metropolitan Police Department were working around the clock to identify and arrest suspects. He complained that their job was made harder because the U.S. Capitol Police did not detain most of the rioters who forced their way into the building.
“The scenario has made our job difficult,” Mr. Sherwin said, noting that the police, F.B.I. agents, counterterrorism investigators and other law enforcement officials now had to rely on social media posts and video footage to identify suspects. “That has made things challenging.”
He said the Capitol Police had not explained why they arrested only 14 people and let hundreds more peacefully walk out of the building. The chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, resigned on Thursday, amid questions about his force’s failure to protect the building.
In all, prosecutors have filed 40 cases in Superior Court on charges including unlawful entry, assault and firearms offenses, and they were preparing to file complaints for 15 federal criminal cases all related to the breach of the Capitol, including unauthorized entry, illegal possession of a firearm and theft of property.
The city’s police also announced that they had arrested nearly 70 people at the riot on charges that included unlawful entry, illegal gun possession and assault.
Rioters rifled through the offices of lawmakers and stole electronics, prosecutors said. Mr. Sherwin said that the theft of files and electronics opened the possibility of national security breaches but that the Justice Department did not yet have a full understanding of the scope of the problem.
One federal complaint accused a man named Mark J. Leffingwell of assaulting a Capitol Police officer around 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday in a hallway in the Senate wing of the Capitol. The officer, Daniel Amendola, said in the complaint that Mr. Leffingwell was part of a crowd that had “breached a window.” When Officer Amendola sought to stop him and others from entering the building any further, Mr. Leffingwell punched him repeatedly in the head and chest, according to the complaint. Mr. Leffingwell then “spontaneously apologized.”
Prosecutors also unsealed charges against a Maryland resident, Christopher Alberts, accusing him of illegally carrying a Taurus 9-millimeter pistol at the riot. Officers first saw Mr. Alberts leaving the Capitol complex around 7:30 p.m. and noticed a bulge on his right hip. When they stopped Mr. Alberts, the officers found the pistol, which had one round in the chamber and a magazine filled with 12 rounds, according to the complaint. They also discovered that he was wearing a bulletproof vest and had a gas mask in his backpack.
After he was taken into custody, the complaint said, Mr. Alberts told the police that he had the weapon for “personal protection” and did not intend to harm anyone.
Mr. Sherwin said he would not rule out investigations into Mr. Trump and his inner circle for their roles in the rioting, just as he would not rule out an investigation into anyone who may have assisted, facilitated or played an ancillary role in the events.
“All options are on the table,” he said. “We will look at every actor and all criminal charges.”
Mr. Trump is said to have discussed in recent weeks the possibility of pardoning himself, an unprecedented and untested use of presidential power, but it is uncertain whether that would ultimately protect him.
Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also told the crowd on Wednesday that Republicans in Congress should back Mr. Trump’s efforts to undo the election result: “We’re coming for you,” he said of lawmakers who refused. And Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, said that to win the election, his supporters would need to engage in “trial by combat” against Democrats.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday to invoke the 25th Amendment and immediately remove Mr. Trump for urging on the mob.
That amendment would allow Mr. Pence and a majority of the cabinet to wrest the power of the presidency from Mr. Trump. But Mr. Pence is said to oppose such a move.
Ms. Pelosi said Democrats were prepared to impeach Mr. Trump for a second time should Mr. Pence not act."