Garland defends DOJ probe into Capitol attack, vows to hold those accountable 'at any level'

Critics say he's hesitant to look at the former president's responsibility.

In a rare address on the vast federal investigation into the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol , Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that the Justice Department is continuing to work to hold accountable, "at any level," all individuals "criminally responsible" for the attack.

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"The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last," Garland said. "Whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy. We will follow the facts wherever they lead."

While Garland's speech did not single out any specific individuals or cases currently being prosecuted by the department, his remarks amounted to a vigorous defense of the government's investigative response to the Capitol assault.

Garland's address to the DOJ workforce came amid heightened criticism from lawmakers, judges and legal experts who have argued that the department has thus far ignored higher-profile individuals like former President Donald Trump and his allies who stoked the lies about a stolen election that directly led to the Capitol riot -- as it aggressively prosecutes the foot soldiers who physically stormed the building.

Garland directly acknowledged that criticism, as he urged patience with investigators while they build leads from existing cases and investigations all while adhering to the department's normal processes.

"We understand that there are questions about how long the investigation will take, and about what exactly we are doing," Garland said. "Our answer is, and will continue to be, the same answer we would give with respect to any ongoing investigation: as long as it takes and whatever it takes for justice to be done -- consistent with the facts and the law."

"I understand that this may not be the answer some are looking for," Garland added. "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."

One year after the assault, more than 700 people across nearly every state in the U.S. have faced federal charges for joining the riot -- and the FBI continues to seek tips on hundreds more still-unidentified individuals, including more than 350 who committed violent acts while on Capitol grounds.

More than 70 people have been sentenced for their criminal conduct on Jan. 6, including more than 30 ordered to time behind bars. A New Jersey man seen hurling a fire extinguisher at police during the siege received the harshest sentence handed down by a judge thus far of more than five years in prison, an ominous sign for the more than 200 individuals currently facing charges of assaulting law enforcement.

But even as the federal investigation into those who carried out the attack on the Capitol charges forward, DOJ and specifically, Garland himself, have increasingly found themselves the subject of public scrutiny over what critics have argued is a seeming hesitance to hold accountable those like former President Donald Trump or his allies who urged the rioters to march toward Congress or otherwise worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The criticism has been levied by numerous legal experts, former prosecutors and lawmakers in editorial pages and cable news appearances -- and has even extended to at least one of the federal judges overseeing the prosecutions of the Jan. 6 rioters.

On Jan. 6, ABC News Live will provide all-day coverage of events marking one year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the continuing fallout for American democracy.

In a November sentencing hearing for Jan. 6 rioter John Lolos, for instance, District Judge Amit Mehta described Lolos as a "pawn" being punished even as those who "created the conditions" for the insurrection "in no meaningful sense of the word have been held to account."

In his speech Wednesday, Garland went on to provide an almost professorial-style lecture into how DOJ typically conducts complex investigations like the one into the attack on the Capitol, noting that investigators usually start with a bottom-up approach of rooting out simpler cases as they build to more high-profile charges.

"In circumstances like those of January 6th, a full accounting does not suddenly materialize. To ensure that all those criminally responsible are held accountable, we must collect the evidence," Garland said. "We follow the physical evidence. We follow the digital evidence. We follow the money. But most important, we follow the facts -- not an agenda or an assumption. The facts tell us where to go next."

He emphasized repeatedly his insistence that the DOJ continue to operate under bedrock principles of equal justice, saying, "there cannot be different rules depending on one’s political party or affiliation. There cannot be different rules for friends and foes. And there cannot be different rules for the powerful and the powerless."

"We conduct every investigation guided by the same norms," Garland said. "And we adhere to those norms even when, and especially when, the circumstances we face are not normal."

The speech comes as a parallel investigation by the Jan. 6 House select committee investigating the Capitol siege continues to trickle out details of Trump's actions before, during and after the attack as well as the activities of his inner circle who were seeking to overturn President Joe Biden's election victory.

The co-chairs of the bipartisan committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., have said in recent weeks that potential criminal referrals to DOJ for specific individuals could be on the table if they find what they believe amounts to evidence of unlawful conduct.

The committee has already made two referrals to DOJ for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows over their defiance of congressional subpoenas. DOJ indicted Bannon in November on two counts of contempt of Congress and his trial is currently set for July.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. has yet to take action against Meadows after receiving his contempt referral in mid-December.