Inside Merrick Garland's bid to boost morale in the federal prosecutor's office handling the January 6th Capitol riot cases, one of the largest investigations in US history
- Merrick Garland praised the prosecutors handling the Capitol riot cases on his first day as attorney general
- The cases are bringing Garland back to his roots at the US attorney’s office in Washington, DC.
- Garland immediately demonstrated his familiarity with an office that was rocked in the Trump era.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Shortly after being sworn in as attorney general, Merrick Garland stepped to a podium in the Great Hall of the Justice Department to address via live stream the more than 100,000 employees now working under him.
“I have to tell you that when I walked in the door of Main Justice this morning,” he said, referring to the department’s headquarters, “it really did feel like I was coming home.”
By day’s end, Garland would venture deeper into his Justice Department roots with a visit to the nearby US attorney’s office in Washington, where he tried drug trafficking, public corruption and fraud cases as a line prosecutor in the early 1990s.
Three decades later, that same office is figuring prominently in his tenure as attorney general as it spearheads the more than 300 prosecutions stemming from the violent rioting at the US Capitol on January 6.
Garland said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month that he would prioritize the Capitol cases. His first day as attorney general featured briefings on the expansive investigation that federal prosecutors have recently described as one of the largest in US history in terms of the number of defendants charged and because of the nature and volume of the evidence.
On his visit to the US attorney’s office in DC, he addressed the staff in a videoconference and praised prosecutors for their efforts in the two months since a pro-Trump mob sought to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, according to two people familiar with Garland’s remarks.
And he demonstrated his familiarity with their office by reminiscing on its collegial atmosphere and a cafeteria where staff used to meet over lunch and mingle. Many listened in bemused silence, unaware of the long-since-removed cafeteria’s past existence.
Garland’s remarks were heartening for the staff on the heels of the Trump presidency, in which the US attorney’s office in Washington cycled through out-of-town leaders and found itself at the center of episodes that were widely seen as underscoring the politicization of the Justice Department.
In one such episode, then-Attorney General William Barr stepped into the office’s case against Roger Stone to overrule the recommendation of career prosecutors and suggest a shorter prison term for the longtime Trump ally. The extraordinary intervention prompted three prosecutors to withdraw from the case and another to resign from the Justice Department in protest.
Months later, the Justice Department moved to drop the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his past communications with the Russian ambassador to the US.
In that stretch, a Boston-rooted Barr aide, Tim Shea, took charge of the DC office, only to be replaced in May by Michael Sherwin, a career prosecutor from Miami who months earlier had taken a temporary assignment in the Justice Department’s front office.
The succession of leaders without prior experience in the prosecutor’s office concerned elected officials in Washington DC given the US attorney’s role as not only the federal but also the local enforcer in the nation’s capital.
In emails described to Insider, Sherwin would refer to the office as “DDC” — for District of the District of Columbia — marking himself as an outsider to prosecutors and staff who generally refer to it simply as the “Office” or “Triple Nickel,” a nickname tied to its address: 555 Fourth Street NW.
In remarks to the office on Thursday, Garland referred to it as “Triple Nickel,” the two sources said.
“I think he’s going to go out of his way to listen to the assistant US attorneys and line prosecutors,” said Wendy Wysong, a Hong Kong-based partner at Steptoe & Johnson who worked as a prosecutor with Garland in the early 1990s.
“All of the US attorneys’ offices need a boost of morale,” Wysong added. “He’ll be the right person to make people feel like they’re respected and appreciated.”
A changing of the guard
In early March, the Biden administration named a veteran of the Washington-based prosecutor’s office, Channing Phillips, as the acting US attorney. Phillips previously stepped in under the Obama administration to lead the office, which is the largest of more than 90 across the country.
Sherwin has remained at the DC office to assist in the transition but is expected to leave later this month.
The Biden administration has not yet named a nominee for the US attorney role, but several veterans of the office — including Anjali Chaturvedi, now an in-house lawyer at the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and Matt Graves, a former head of the office’s fraud and public corruption section — are seen as top contenders, according to people familiar with the selection process.
Past service in the federal prosecutor’s office in Washington is a resume line shared among several of Biden’s Justice Department appointees.
Biden’s nominee for deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, served as a career prosecutor in the office after working on the Justice Department’s Enron Task Force. Monaco, who is awaiting confirmation to the second-ranking Justice Department role, later served as Robert Mueller’s chief of staff during his tenure as FBI director and as a homeland security adviser to former President Barack Obama.
The acting deputy attorney general, John Carlin, also served as a career prosecutor in the DC office. He went on to serve as Mueller’s chief of staff at the FBI and led the Justice Department’s national security division late in the Obama administration.
Garland joined the US attorney’s office in 1989 from the prominent law firm Arnold & Porter. With a law firm partnership and Supreme Court clerkship in his past, he stood out among the crop of new prosecutors, Wysong said.
“We wondered, ‘What in the world is Merrick Garland [doing here]?’ We didn’t know him at the time, but this very prominent partner — a Supreme Court law clerk — was there right alongside us,” she said. “He could not have had less of an ego.”
In the early training sessions, Wysong recalled, “he rolled up his sleeves and really got into all of the exercises, learning how to prosecute criminal cases.”
‘I will always be just Merrick to you’
Garland rose quickly through the ranks. While most newly-minted prosecutors started in Washington’s local Superior Court, Garland was deployed almost immediately to federal court, Wysong recalled.
His tenure was highlighted by his involvement in the investigation of the District of Columbia’s mayor at the time, Marion Barry, who was indicted on drug charges after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine during a sting operation.
But it was in a lower-profile probe, concerning drug smuggling by prison guards, where Garland showed glimmers of the meticulousness that he came to be known for years later overseeing the investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Wysong, who worked on the investigation with Garland, said he was careful in preparing undercover cooperators who wore wires as part of the probe. Scripts were prepared to avoid the risk of opening an entrapment defense and to ensure that, on the recordings, the targets did most of the talking.
“I don’t think any of the guards actually went to trial. I think they all had to plead guilty. We had a script that was followed very well by the undercover folks who were wearing the wires, so there was very little defense to what they had been doing,” Wysong said.
Garland returned briefly to Arnold & Porter after his time as a prosecutor before returning to the Justice Department under the Clinton administration as a top official in the criminal division. In 1995, he was serving as the top aide to the then-deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, when he oversaw the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing and initial proceedings against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
“Even though they had Timothy McVeigh cold on what he’d done, I heard repeatedly that Merrick still insisted on going absolutely by the book on all the search warrants, the evidence getting turned over to the defense — everything I had seen firsthand when he was a relatively junior prosecutor,” she added.
Years later, in the cafeteria of the federal courthouse in Washington, Wysong ran into Garland shortly after his confirmation to the powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. She greeted him as “Merrick” rather than “your honor” and shuddered immediately at what she believed to be a breach of decorum.
“Wendy, no, no, no,” Garland told her. “I will always be just Merrick to you.”
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