The FBI had scarcely decamped from Mar-a-Lago when former President Donald Trump’s allies, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, began a bombardment of vitriol and threats against the man they see as a foe and foil: Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Garland, a bookish former judge who during his unsuccessful Supreme Court nomination in 2016 told senators that he did not have “a political bone” in his body, responded, as he so often does, by not responding.

The Justice Department would not acknowledge the execution of a search warrant at Trump’s home in Florida on Monday, nor would Garland’s aides confirm his involvement in the decision or even whether he knew about the search before it was conducted. They declined to comment on every fact brought to their attention. Garland’s schedule this week is devoid of any public events where he could be questioned by reporters.

Like a captain trying to keep from drifting out of the eye and into the hurricane, Garland is hoping to navigate the sprawling and multifaceted investigation into the actions of Trump and his supporters after the 2020 election without compromising the integrity of the prosecution or wrecking his legacy.

Toward that end, the attorney general is operating with a maximum of stealth and a minimum of public comment, a course similar to the one charted by Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, during his two-year investigation of Trump’s connections to Russia.

That tight-lipped approach may avoid the pitfalls of the comparatively more public-facing investigations into Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election by James Comey, the FBI director at the time. But it comes with its own peril — ceding control of the public narrative to Trump and his allies, who are not constrained by law, or even fact, in fighting back.


“Garland has said that he wants his investigation to be apolitical, but nothing he does will stop Trump from distorting the perception of the investigation, given the asymmetrical rules,” said Andrew Weissmann, who was one of Mueller’s top aides in the special counsel’s office.

“Under Justice Department policy, we were not allowed to take on those criticisms,” Weissmann added. “Playing by the Justice Department rules sadly but necessarily leaves the playing field open to this abuse.”

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Mueller’s refusal to engage with his critics, or even to defend himself against obvious smears and lies, allowed Trump to fill the political void with reckless accusations of a witch hunt while the special counsel confined his public statements to dense legal jargon. Trump’s broadsides helped define the Russia investigation as a partisan attack, despite the fact that Mueller was a Republican.

Some of the most senior Justice Department officials making the decisions now have deep connections to Mueller and view Comey’s willingness to openly discuss his 2016 investigations related to Clinton and Trump as a gross violation of the Justice Manual, the department’s procedural guidebook.

The Mar-a-Lago search warrant was requested by the Justice Department’s national security division, whose head, Matthew G. Olsen, served under Mueller when he was the FBI director. In 2019, Olsen expressed astonishment that the publicity-shy Mueller was even willing to appear at a news conference announcing his decision to lay out Trump’s conduct but not recommend that he be prosecuted or held accountable for interfering in the Russia investigation.


But people close to Garland say that while his team respects Mueller, they have learned from his mistakes. Garland, despite his silence this week, has made a point of talking publicly about the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol on many occasions — even if it has only been to explain why he cannot talk publicly about the investigation.

“I understand that this may not be the answer some are looking for,” he said during a speech marking the anniversary of the Capitol attack. “But we will and we must speak through our work. Anything else jeopardizes the viability of our investigations and the civil liberties of our citizens.”

At the time, that comment was intended to assuage Democrats who wanted him to more aggressively pursue Trump. Now it is Republican leaders, including McCarthy, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former Vice President Mike Pence, who are clamoring for a public explanation of his actions.

Garland enjoys a significant advantage over Mueller as he heads into battle. The House committee investigating the assault on the Capitol intends to continue its inquiry into the fall, and its members plan to make the issue of Trump’s actions a central political theme through the midterm elections and into 2024, providing Garland with the kind of covering fire Mueller never had.

Nonetheless, by late Monday, the former president and his supporters tried to seize the offensive by filling the rhetorical void left by federal investigators, accusing Garland of perverting justice for political motives.

In the past, Democrats have been relentless in arguing that Trump’s behavior as president evoked the actions of dictators in other countries. In a statement on Monday night about the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump repurposed that line of criticism.


“It is prosecutorial misconduct, the weaponization of the Justice System, and an attack by Radical Left Democrats who desperately don’t want me to run for President in 2024,” he said in the statement, adding, “Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries.”

As often happens, that argument quickly became a template for his supporters, especially those running for office this year. “The weaponization of Biden’s DOJ against political enemies is unprecedented,” Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri, the Republican nominee for Senate in that state, wrote on Twitter. “This is Banana Republic stuff,” he added.

But no one went quite so far as McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who has sought to rehabilitate his relationship with the former president after sharply criticizing Trump’s actions on Jan. 6.

“I’ve seen enough,” McCarthy said. “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization. When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment.