Opinion Garland’s mushy speech to Harvard grads does not inspire confidence
Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose slow-motion investigation of the plot to overthrow the 2020 election has frustrated defenders of democracy, spoke at a Harvard commencement ceremony on Sunday. He delivered a sincere, high-minded ode to democratic ideals and public service. But the address illustrated two fundamental complaints about his leadership of the Justice Department.
First, in an effort to appear nonpartisan, he inoculated the party responsible for the assault on American democracy. On Jan. 6, “as the United States Congress was meeting to certify the vote count of the electoral college, a large crowd violently forced entry into the Capitol,” Garland said. “We all watched as police officers were punched, dragged, tased and beaten. We saw journalists targeted, assaulted, tackled and harassed.” He added: “Members of Congress had to be evacuated. And proceedings were disrupted for hours — interfering with a fundamental element of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.”
It is apparently a mystery who motivated the insurrectionists — and which party set the stage for the insurrection and now perpetuates the “big lie” of a stolen election. Garland intoned that “the preservation of democracy requires our willingness to tell the truth” and declared that “we must ensure that the magnitude of an event like January 6th is not downplayed or understated.”
Is there not one party “downplaying” or “understating” the events of that day? Can we not identify who has called this sort of domestic terrorism “legitimate political discourse”?
“At the same time that we are witnessing efforts to undermine the right to vote,” Garland said, “we are also witnessing violence and threats of violence that undermine the rule of law upon which our democracy is based.” He lamented the “dramatic increase in legislative efforts that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect representatives of their own choice.”
We are “witnessing efforts” by whom? Garland’s fuzzy talk disguises the culprits behind the intense campaign, well underway, to suppress and subvert American elections. One would never know listening to him that there is one party to blame — the Republicans — or that there has yet to be a single instance in which a Democratic legislature or Democratic governor has pursued such tactics.
The attorney general’s excessive use of the passive voice and refusal to clarify who did what and who is lying about what provide rhetorical cover for a party that has gone all in on the “big lie” and runs candidates who rationalize the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Garland would not prejudice his investigation were he to say something like this:
On that day, as the United States Congress was meeting to certify the vote count of the electoral college, the defeated president, Donald Trump, assembled a large crowd. He called for them to march on the Capitol. They followed his directive and violently forced their way into the building. The mob inspired by the lie that the election was stolen proceeded to punch, drag, tase and beat police officers. The mob acting in support of Trump forced members of Congress to evacuate. Just as Trump intended, the mob disrupted the proceedings for hours, interfering with a fundamental element of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.
How hard would it be to provide that minimum level of candor?
Second, Garland limited his remarks, as he habitually does, to the violence of Jan. 6 — leaving out the fact that to properly account for what happened that day, officials have a duty to investigate the overall conspiracy to install the 2020 loser as president.
The coup attempt began long before Jan. 6, even before the 2020 election. An entire universe of conduct should be under scrutiny, from Donald Trump’s lies about absentee ballots, to his lawyers’ frivolous lawsuits to overturn the election, to Trump’s attempts to strong-arm the Georgia secretary of state to “find” votes, and to compel the Justice Department to somehow invalidate the election.
Garland may very well believe such conduct is illegal. But we are left wondering. If he does not, this will set a dismaying precedent under which losing presidential candidates will feel empowered to solicit a phony slate of electors, or to scheme to force the vice president to short-circuit the electoral-vote proceedings.
Granted, Garland does not want to publicly list the particulars of an ongoing investigation. But surely, he could confirm that the Jan. 6 violence was just one aspect of the coup attempt. Surely, he could reiterate that the Justice Department is tasked with investigating attempts to invalidate the election by both peaceful and non-peaceful means.
Supporters of democracy should not root for the sort of blatant partisanship from the attorney general that we saw from his predecessor. But Garland has an obligation not to obfuscate. If he aims to restore the credibility of the Justice Department, he can at the very least acknowledge that the threat to democracy is not bipartisan. It emanates from a right-wing political movement led by a former defeated president and his enablers.
And if Garland is “following the facts” as they relate only to armed insurrection, he should know that this is dangerous, too — that he would be giving a pass to dozens of executive officials, including the president (and perhaps members of Congress), who plotted to wreck our democratic election process.
We can only hope his vision is more comprehensive than his public remarks."