The FBI, mindful of not wanting to appear partisan, had for months held off on launching a formal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s role in efforts to subvert the 2020 election, The Washington Post reported Monday, though the episode doesn’t appear to have significantly hampered prosecutors’ ability to look at Trump for federal crimes in the past two years.
Shortly after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, top Justice Department and FBI officials dismissed as premature a plan to investigate Trump allies as part of its probe and initially held off on naming him as a target, the Post reported, citing several sources familiar.
Prosecutor J.P. Cooney, the Post said, pushed to expand the probe to investigate potential links between extremists and some in Trump’s orbit and proposed to do so in February 2021. But along with feeling it was premature, top officials who initially rejected that proposal were also weary of political risks and straying away from standard investigative procedure, according to the Post.
Instead, top Justice Department officials including Attorney General Merrick Garland encouraged prosecutors to build cases by working their way up the ladder as they initially faced tackling cases against Trump supporters who partook in the Capitol riot. About a year before special counsel Jack Smith was appointed to look at Trump, his inner circle and January 6, prosecutors were pursuing investigative threads around coordinated efforts to support the riot, including by looking at political figures, and were given the greenlight to take a case up to Trump if the evidence led to it, CNN previously reported.
The Post – citing a review of internal documents, court files, congressional records, handwritten contemporaneous notes and interviews with current and former officials – for the first time recounts meetings and discussions especially within the FBI at an early, fraught moment of the unprecedented criminal investigation. Now under the special counsel’s purview, the investigation around Trump and the 2020 election has moved extremely fast, especially to secure grand jury testimony from top White House officials and even former Vice President Mike Pence.
Yet officials early on had rejected a proposal that would have honed in on documents used by Trump to pressure Pence to not certify the 2020 election, according to the Post.
Following his March 2021 confirmation, Attorney General Merrick Garland – along with deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco and FBI Director Christopher Wray – doubled down on a bottom-up approach that focused first on prosecuting rioters, the Post said. Garland’s early attempts at avoiding accusations of a politically motivated probe worried some inside the department, who told the Post that it slowed down investigative efforts.
The DOJ and FBI declined to make Garland, Monaco and Wray available to the newspaper for interviews, it reported.
But each has spoken about the investigation’s general methods. Monaco told CNN in January 2022 – one year after Trump left office – federal prosecutors were looking at the use of fake Electoral College certifications to attempt to declare Trump winner of the presidency. Garland at the one year anniversary of the Capitol attack said in a speech that the department was building investigations “by laying a foundation” and following the facts to hold accountable “perpetrators, at any level.”
The department began last summer to ramp up its investigation directly into Trump, especially by using multiple pushes to secure hard-to-get documents and testimony into a grand jury in Washington.
CNN reported at the time that the department had subpoenaed GOP officials in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania in late June 2022, and by September, had subpoenaed more than 30 people in the former president’s orbit, including 2020 campaign officials.
In announcing Smith as special counsel, Garland said Smith “has built the reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor.”