As President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday confirmed reporting that he will nominate Judge Merrick Garland to lead the U.S. Department of Justice, a coalition of public interest groups urged the attorney general-designate to establish an independent task force to investigate alleged crimes by President Donald Trump and his cohorts.
The joint letter (pdf) calls on Garland—upon his confirmation by what will soon be a Democrat-controlled Senate—to create the DOJ task force to probe "any potential federal criminal or civil violations that may have been committed by President Trump, members of his administration, or his campaign, business, or other associates."
"For at least the past five years, Donald Trump, and his aides and associates, have engaged in a flurry of unethical, unconstitutional, and often criminal activity," the letter says, "culminating yesterday with the seditious insurrection on the United States Capitol incited and encouraged by the president and his allies."
"If we are to begin the process of restoring the integrity of the Department of Justice and the rule of law to our nation," the letter adds, "it is essential that the department thoroughly investigate these actions and, where warranted and appropriate, hold accountable those who have violated the nation's laws."
BREAKING: We just issued, with a coalition of national public interest organizations, this letter to AG-Designate Judge Garland urging him to establish a task force to investigate all potential federal crimes committed by Trump and his associates. No one is above the law. @FSFP https://t.co/8MFBXNIi0B
— John Bonifaz (@JohnBonifaz) January 7, 2021
Spearheaded by Free Speech for People, the letter was signed by 10 other groups: Action Group Network, Brave New Films, Demand Progress, Equal Justice Society, For All, Government Accountability Project, Progressive Leadership Initiative, Progressives for Democracy in America, Revolving Door Project, and True North Research.
The letter came a day after President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that stalled the certification of Biden's Electoral College win for several hours. The violence has provoked mounting calls for the president to be arrested, impeached, or removed from office under the 25th Amendment. Some Democrats in Congress and political commentators are also calling for the resignation or expulsion of GOP members who helped spark the siege.
While the chaos of Wednesday triggered a flood of fresh criticism of Trump's presidency, the signatories of the letter to Garland highlighted other events and allegations that they believe should be investigated. The six categories detailed are:
- Offenses related to President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election;
- Offenses related to the 2016 election that were not prosecuted during the Trump presidency because of Department of Justice policy;
- Offenses related to misuse of the presidency and high office for personal profit, including bribery or extortion;
- Other offenses related to the Trump Organization, including tax fraud, bank fraud, or insurance fraud;
- Offenses related to immigration and the U.S.-Mexican border; and
- Other offenses.
"In addition to the conduct already known publicly," the sixth section says, "given the disregard for the law demonstrated by President Trump and his key aides and associates, it is likely that further investigation will reveal additional offenses, including obstruction of justice, obstruction of the lawful function of federal agencies, destruction or concealment of federal records, and other offenses, many of which may occur in the remaining days of the transition period."
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"This investigation could also include the circumstances and validity of self-serving presidential pardons, including whether pardons were granted as part of a bribery, extortion, or conspiracy scheme," the letter adds while noting that the probe may also "need to consider the validity of a pardon of Trump himself."
Although, as the letter points out (pdf), the DOJ has long recognized that "under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the president cannot pardon himself," the New York Times reported that Trump "has suggested to aides he wants to pardon himself in the final days of his presidency, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions, a move that would mark one of the most extraordinary and untested uses of presidential power in American history."
The Times added that it is unclear whether the topic has come up since the pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol and the White House did not respond to request for comment. However, CNN—citing multiple sources—also reported Thursday that the president has in recent weeks asked aides and lawyers about a self-pardon.
NEW details in SELF PARDON story: Trump appeared to aides to enjoy watching t.v. scenes of Capitol siege. WH top lawyer warned him he could face legal exposure for the riot given he had urged his supporters to march to the Capitol and “fight.” w/@maggieNYT https://t.co/ebeJrQEAER
— Michael S. Schmidt (@nytmike) January 7, 2021
The groups note that Trump may soon resign so that he can be succeeded and pardoned by Vice President Mike Pence—and "if so, the investigation will need to examine whether that pardon was part of a corrupt scheme and whether it is legally invalid." The letter also emphasizes that "our constitutional system, under which no one, especially the president, is above the law, permits and obligates the Department of Justice to enforce the law, where appropriate, against former presidents."
Before his electoral victory, Biden had said during a debate that "I would not direct my Justice Department like this president does. I would let them make their independent judgment." While applauding those remarks, the letter argues that the DOJ "would not be well-served by an uncoordinated approach involving multiple organizational units (including both at Main Justice and U.S. Attorneys' offices) separately investigating and prosecuting the same or overlapping conduct."
Thus, the groups encourage Garland "to establish—and then leave to pursue its work—a task force to investigate potential misconduct and, if any violations of federal law are substantiated, to pursue criminal and civil remedies in court." No matter how the task force is organized, the groups add, it "should be isolated within the Department of Justice, so that it will neither distract from other department work nor be subject to political interference."
Garland serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; he was appointed to that position by former President Bill Clinton. Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, nominated Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Even though, as the Times noted Wednesday, "Garland was initially considered a long shot for attorney general, in part because he is seen as politically moderate" and is "a white man with a record of favoring law enforcement over people accused of crimes," the GOP-controlled Senate refused to consider his nomination for the high court.