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'Washington Post' journalist on FBI's delayed investigation of Trump's role in Jan. 6

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As former President Donald Trump faces historic charges brought by the Justice Department related to his handling of classified documents, we are learning that he could have been subject to another DOJ probe much sooner. According to a new investigation by The Washington Post, the FBI held off on looking into what Trump did in the lead-up to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. What was behind that delay? And what might it signal, bigger picture? Let's talk it through it with The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig, one of the journalists who broke the story. Hey there.

CAROL LEONNIG: Hi, Mary Louise. Great to be with you.

KELLY: Great to have you with us. How long did the Justice Department wait to investigate Donald Trump and his allies in this case - the January 6 case?

LEONNIG: If you're thinking of the way in which Donald Trump led an effort to steal the 2020 election, the Department of Justice and the FBI together waited 15 months to launch a formal investigation into that matter.

KELLY: Fifteen months, one five. OK.

LEONNIG: That's right.

KELLY: And why?

LEONNIG: You know, what we learned was that inside the senior leadership of the Department of Justice, there was a lot of angst about restoring trust and faith in the Department of Justice - wanting so desperately for the public to view this entity as apolitical. And this department really - under Merrick Garland, really wanted to send a message, hey, politics is not what we're doing. The problems, however, was there was a lot of evidence that Donald Trump and at least many of his allies were possibly engaged in a crime - that efforts to pressure the vice president and efforts to basically pressure state officials to declare fraud in their state when there was none. All of those things had a potential criminal statute that could be charged, and the department just simply did not want to look in that direction, according to multiple sources that we spoke with.

KELLY: Is there any sign that the 15-month delay damaged the case they have subsequently built?

LEONNIG: I mean, we know from trials of the militia members that there were instructions from leadership there to delete your encrypted messages, delete your communications with people before January 6 and on that day. And we know that people's memories fade. And we also know that, you know, Mary Louise, the January 6 committee, they were the first footprints in the snow. That congressional investigation interviewed a lot of senior White House aides to Donald Trump, DOJ officials. They were interviewing these people before the Department of Justice ever considered talking to them. And that potentially stymies a Justice Department investigation because if those accounts of those different witnesses are different, that can challenge any prosecution.

KELLY: Harder to make it stick in court. Yeah.

LEONNIG: Exactly.

KELLY: Let me invite you to step back, and I'll just put the question that to me feels at the center of this, why does it matter? You're reporting you found a 15-month delay. OK, but they did eventually investigate. Why does this matter?

LEONNIG: You know what we learned, to our shock, was that several critical, front-seat witnesses were not interviewed until the independent counsel, Jack Smith, was named. In addition to memories fading, the Department of Justice is an iconic institution, something that is supposed to shore up our democracy. What we heard over and over again was this institution did not meet the test. It shrunk away from shoring up democracy out of fear of being accused of being partisan. Sometimes, as many sources told us, trying to avoid being partisan means you're not doing the job of investigating crime and holding people accountable. And national security experts, generals will tell you that not holding people accountable means we have to get ready for the possibility of another insurrection in the 2024 election.

KELLY: So I will note, as your article notes, that Trump has maintained no wrongdoing, and we'll wait to see where these investigations ultimately land. I suppose the other factor here is timing and the politics and the fact that the former president is running to be president once again. To what extent does that seem to have factored into decision-making or not, that a 15-month delay means we're 15 months closer to the '24 election?

LEONNIG: A 15-month delay into investigating the attempted theft of a democratic election is an extremely complicated, novel case. And Jack Smith, the current special counsel, is racing against this political clock to get all the answers. And it's not a case you rush. And to bring a case of, say, mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy against a former president and current nominee is fraught with peril.

KELLY: Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, thanks very much.

LEONNIG: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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