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Attorney General Garland is 18 months into his promise to return the DOJ to normal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland promised to return the Justice Department to normal order after the chaos of the Trump years. That hasn't always been easy, especially in the shadow of the January 6 Capitol riot and the FBI search this month of former President Trump's estate. NPR's Carrie Johnson covers the Justice Department - joins us now.

Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Coming up on 18 months in office for Attorney General Garland - how do you see his time there?

JOHNSON: You know, Merrick Garland took office only weeks after a violent mob stormed the Capitol building. He's promised to bring to justice anyone who's responsible for the assault on democracy, whether they entered the Capitol or not. And more than 850 people have been charged so far. But prosecutors are still investigating the organizers and funders of the political rally that day, January 6. They've issued grand jury subpoenas for top figures in the Trump White House, like the former White House counsel Pat Cipollone and aides to former Vice President Mike Pence - but no charges in that part of the investigation.

SIMON: And no charges against people who are higher up in the chain of responsibility - and that has upset some people who have already been punished for the riot itself. What do they say?

JOHNSON: Several of these rioters have tried to defend themselves in court by saying they traveled to the Capitol because Donald Trump told them to. But that has not gotten them out of legal trouble. Merrick Garland, the attorney general, knows there's a lot of public pressure that's only grown after the bombshell public hearings this summer from the House Select Committee. The public perception in many respects is that DOJ's fallen behind and is chasing down what congressional investigators already uncovered. But DOJ is currently getting ready for two big, seditious conspiracy trials against leaders of the far-right groups the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. And it's aggressively investigating the people who try to overturn the 2020 election by advancing those phony slate of electors.

SIMON: We haven't even gotten to events at Mar-a-Lago. The first time the FBI has searched the home of a former president, isn't it?

JOHNSON: The first - another high-pressure, high-visibility moment for the attorney general. In rare public remarks last week, here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly without fear or favor. Under my watch, that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing.

JOHNSON: We still don't know what kind of government secrets the FBI might have gathered at Mar-a-Lago or why former President Trump may have kept top secret papers at his home, which also doubles as a private club. If it turns out the FBI just wanted these papers back, Republicans in Congress have signaled they're going to be tough on this Justice Department. They want to see a real need for this unprecedented search.

SIMON: Carrie, you've been speaking with some of the attorney general's former colleagues about this Trump search. What do you hear from them?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I spoke with Jamie Gorelick. She's been friends with the attorney general since college. Merrick Garland was her deputy in the Justice Department in the Bill Clinton administration. Here's what Jamie Gorelick had to say about Garland personally approving the Mar-a-Lago search.

JAMIE GORELICK: He does not fly off the handle. He understands the need for care in the exercise of the extraordinary powers of the federal government. I don't think he welcomed this choice. And I think he made the decision he had to make.

JOHNSON: One of Garland's former law clerks named Karen Dunn told me the AG has a deep and genuine love for the Justice Department and that he's not thinking about himself, but instead the integrity of the DOJ. Now, Scott, we're waiting to learn more about the reasons for this FBI search and to see how much of the affidavit explaining that search will become public.

SIMON: The attorney general has been trying to steer the Justice Department away from politics. Is that practical?

JOHNSON: He can try, but those midterm elections are looming. I spoke with Cully Stimson. He's a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He's a former federal prosecutor who also served in the George W. Bush administration. And Stimson says these kinds of government jobs take a heavy toll on people.

CULLY STIMSON: I think if the Republicans take back the House, there'll be oversight hearings into all sorts of things. And I suspect Merrick Garland will be called up to the Hill more than once. And he'll have to decide - and the administration will have to decide - whether or not continued service is in the best interest of the administration.

JOHNSON: One of the things Republicans are going to ask about is the investigation of Hunter Biden, the president's son. A holdover from the Trump administration in the Justice Department has been leading that tax fraud probe. And GOP lawmakers are pressing for some resolution of that case.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Thank you so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "SMILE/PETTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.