AG Merrick Garland touts U.S. efforts in Ukraine during Denver speech, but steers clear of Trump prosecution

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland touted American efforts to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine during a 20-minute speech in Denver on Monday, but never once mentioned the Justice Department’s pending indictments of former President Donald Trump.

The country’s top law enforcement officer steered clear of the historic indictments as he addressed several hundred people at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting, held this year at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

Trump was indicted on federal charges for the second time last week over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and stop the transfer of power. The Department of Justice investigation that led to those charges and the earlier indictment on charges Trump mishandled classified documents is being led by special counsel Jack Smith, and Garland has attempted to distance himself from the Trump investigation since appointing Smith.

When the latest indictment was made public last week, Garland simply told reporters that Smith was focused on “accountability and independence.” Still, Garland holds the last word over the effort as head of the agency.

In Denver on Monday, Garland did not address the prosecution of the former president and instead focused on U.S. efforts to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, particularly around efforts to identify, investigate and prosecute war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces.

Garland touted U.S. efforts to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs and other supporters of the invasion, and said that people who commit war crimes in Ukraine will be prosecuted in U.S. courts if they ever come to America.

“Russian war criminals who set foot in the United States should expect to find themselves in U.S. courts of law,” he said. “War criminals will find no refuge in America.”

Garland drew parallels to the international effort to hold Nazi war criminals responsible after World War II. He noted that his own grandmother and members of his wife’s family both immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution, a move that allowed them to escape the Holocaust. Other family members who did not immigrate were killed, he said.

“We do not know if anyone involved in their deaths was ever held accountable,” he said. “The families of the victims of the current atrocities in Ukraine deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. They deserve justice.”

Garland’s speech, which received a standing ovation, comes as the Justice Department faces its biggest test in history — navigating unprecedented conditions in American democracy while trying to fight back against relentless attacks on its own credibility and that of the U.S. election system. The success or failure of Trump’s prosecution has the potential to affect the standing of the department for years to come.

The latest indictment is the third criminal case filed against Trump this year, but the first to try to hold him criminally responsible for his efforts to cling to power in the weeks between his election loss and the Capitol attack that stunned the world. Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday before a federal magistrate judge and was ordered not to speak about the case with any potential witnesses.

Throughout his career, Garland has been steeped in Justice Department procedures and norms, and as a judge, his decisions were thorough but “judicially modest,” said Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer who served as deputy attorney general in the 1990s and has been a Garland colleague and friend for decades.

“His view was, you do what you need to thoroughly and well and you don’t reach, you don’t do more than you have to do,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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