Federal officials prepare for ‘long haul’ investigation of Capitol riots

'The Capitol grounds, outside and inside, are essentially a crime scene'

The East Front of the U.S. Capitol is seen through a shattered door following the riot last week.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The East Front of the U.S. Capitol is seen through a shattered door following the riot last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 12, 2021 at 5:20pm

The top federal prosecutor in Washington urged the public to have patience Tuesday with the sprawling nationwide investigation into the Trump-inspired mob that stormed the Capitol Building on Wednesday, including why two pipe bombs outside nearby political offices did not go off.

Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, stressed that the scope and scale of the probe means it would take months to uncover what happened when thousands of President Donald Trump supporters surrounded the building and flooded the halls of Congress.

"The Capitol grounds, outside and inside, are essentially a crime scene, and a scale in which we have literally thousands of potential witnesses, and a scenario in which we're going to have, I believe, hundreds of criminal cases,” Sherwin said in the first on-camera press briefing from law enforcement authorities since the violent insurrection.

Authorities said they have charged more than 70 people with crimes and identified more than 170 people who potentially committed crimes during the mob riot, including those in the most viral moments from the chaotic scene that was captured in photographs, livestreams and media reports.

That includes arrests in various states of a man photographed carrying Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, another photographed in her office and holding her mail, and another carrying a spear with an American flag tied to it.

They asked a court Tuesday to hold in custody an Alabama man charged with having a dozen Molotov cocktails and two firearms in a truck near the Capitol grounds. Those numbers are going to “geometrically increase,” Sherwin said, and there could be hundreds of charges in the coming weeks.

The FBI continues to search for the person who left the pipe bombs near the National Republican Club, 300 First St. SE, and three blocks away at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, 430 S. Capitol St. SE.

They have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to that person’s arrest, and focused the public’s attention on recognizing the perpetrator’s shoes or backpack. And they still want to identify a man photographed as he carried a Confederate flag through the halls.

"The gamut of cases and criminal conduct we're looking at is really mind blowing,” Sherwin said. That includes simple trespass, theft of mail or digital devices, assault on officers, theft of national security information, felony murder, civil rights excessive force, and more.

While many of the initial charges have been relatively minor, Sherwin said that the Justice Department wants to arrest people as soon as possible and pursue more substantial charges later. He created a strike force to build sedition and conspiracy charges related to “the most heinous acts that occurred in the Capitol.”

“This is not the end,” Sherwin said. “We're looking at significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy.”

That strike force is treating the violent insurrection at the Capitol Building “just like a significant international counterterrorism or counterintelligence operation,” Sherwin said. That includes looking at financial, travel and communications records.

“No resource related to the FBI, or the U.S. Attorney's Office, will be unchecked in terms of trying to determine exactly if there was a command and control, how it operated and how they executed these activities,” Sherwin said.

Other investigative focuses are on assaults on members of the media, as well as on assault and battery on law enforcement officers, Sherwin said. And in some instances Capitol Police were in open-handed combat with people inside the Capitol Building, and rioters used tear gas on officers.

“The picture is going to build,” Sherwin said. “I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what happened within the Capitol, and it's going to come into laser focus, I think, over the next weeks and days. And I think people are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.”

The two pipe bombs found near the Republican and Democratic offices were real devices that officers had to diffuse, Sherwin said. The investigation now wants to uncover whether those were planted as a diversionary tactic to occupy law enforcement resources, or some other nefarious purpose.

“They had explosive igniters. They had timers,” Sherwin said. “We don't know, obviously, exactly why they did not go off.”

All of that, Sherwin stressed, will take time. The group of federal agencies helping the investigation “is in for the long haul.”

“This is not going to be solved overnight. It’s not going to be solved within the coming weeks. It's not going to be solved within the coming months,” Sherwin said. “This is going to be a long term investigation.”