WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Thursday that it would not rule out pursuing charges against President Donald 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.
Sherwin was asked whether such targets would include 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 Trump’s baseless claims of election irregularities, the protesters had gathered to demonstrate against Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory and moved on to the Capitol after the president’s rally.
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 Trump’s actions. Former Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Attorney General William Barr, once among the president’s most important defenders, blamed him for Wednesday’s violence. Several officials resigned, and even some Republican lawmakers said Trump had gone too far.
The Justice Department generally asserts that sitting presidents cannot be charged with a crime, but that protection covers Trump for only 13 more days.
Biden, who has said he has no appetite to investigate and prosecute the Trump administration, unequivocally blamed 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 Trump had treated Barr and the Justice Department “as his personal lawyer and the department as his personal law firm,” and that Judge Merrick 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,” 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.”
The Justice Department faces the daunting task of prosecuting a large number of people who broke into the Capitol, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington acts as the main prosecutor for the District of Columbia.
Sherwin said that 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,” Sherwin said, noting that the police, FBI agents, counterterrorism investigators and other law enforcement now had to rely on social media posts and video footage to identify suspects. “That has made things challenging.”
He said he had received no word from the Capitol Police as to 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 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 related to the breach of the Capitol, including unauthorized entry, illegal possession of a firearm and theft of property.
Rioters also rifled through the offices of lawmakers and stole electronics, prosecutors said.
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.
Sherwin said the theft of files and electronics from lawmakers’ offices 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 Leffingwell was part of a crowd that had “breached a window.” When Amendola sought to stop him and others from entering the building any further, Leffingwell punched him repeatedly in the head and chest, according to the complaint. 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 Alberts leaving the Capitol complex around 7:30 p.m. and noticed a bulge on his right hip. When they stopped 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, Alberts told the police that he had the weapon for “personal protection” and did not intend to harm anyone.
Sherwin said he would not rule out investigations into 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.”
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.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also told the crowd on Wednesday that Republicans in Congress should back Trump’s efforts to undo the election result: “We’re coming for you,” he said of lawmakers who refused. And Rudy Giuliani, 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 Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday to invoke the 25th Amendment and immediately remove Trump for urging on the mob.
That amendment would allow Pence and a majority of the Cabinet to wrest the power of the presidency from Trump. But Pence is said to oppose such a move.
Pelosi said Democrats were prepared to impeach Trump for a second time should Pence not act.