The acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, says "hundreds" of people may ultimately face charges related to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, which interrupted a session of Congress and left five people dead.
Sherwin spoke with NPR's Martin Kaste in an exclusive interview Saturday evening about the multiagency investigation, the challenges officials face and what they'll be looking for.
Sherwin says he doesn't want to "Monday morning quarterback" the U.S. Capitol Police, but the fact that they allowed hundreds of potential suspects to leave the scene has made his job more difficult. Now he says staffers are putting in "24-hour shifts" to identify suspects, searching for evidence online and saving it before it can be deleted.
He says there's likely to be a wide array of criminal charges, ranging from destruction of federal property to murder. He also expects to find evidence of coordination among at least some of the rioters.
At the same time, Sherwin is careful about what to call the violence at the Capitol. He says it's not his place to make political judgments.
"I don't want this tyranny of labels saying this was sedition, this was a coup," Sherwin says. "But what I will say is, it was criminal."
And, he says, if the evidence points to crimes by elected officials — such as incitement of violence — he's prepared to bring the appropriate charges.
Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
I'm sure you have many sources of intel before an event like this. Did you get warnings about the possibility of violence?
Of course, there were warnings. I mean, look, you scrub social media, there is all types of intelligence indications. So, of course, there were warnings on social media, the different platforms, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and we were cognizant of those. There's always outliers, but, yeah, there were warnings that people were going to coalesce and protest, and some individuals said, "Yeah, we're going to take back our house." So, yeah, those warnings were out there.
What is your job looking like right now? Your department, your people?
So, look, we're in the crucible of it right now. I was looking back through the history of the [Justice] Department, and, you know, you look at Oklahoma City, obviously 9/11, and obviously those were tremendously unbelievable investigations and incidents in American history. ... But this is different, I think, for a couple of reasons. One is the scale of suspects. We have potentially thousands of people that may have information about crimes ... meaning there could be hundreds of people charged. I don't think there's any similar case in DOJ history that compares to that. Also, the litany of crimes that may have been committed. So we're looking at everything — in a very limited period of time — we're looking at everything from destruction of property to theft of property, to unauthorized access to restricted areas, to potential theft of national security information, to potential murder, to potential excessive [police] force investigations.
On Thursday you were quoted saying the conduct of "all actors" would be examined, which was interpreted to mean President Trump might face charges. Is that what you meant — the man who gave the speech at the start of the day could be looking at charges?
Look, I meant what I said before. In any criminal investigation, I don't care if it's a drug trafficking conspiracy case, a human trafficking case or the Capitol — all persons will be looked at, OK? If the evidence is there, great. If it's not, you move on. But we follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to any actor that may have had a role in this and if that evidence meets the four corners of a federal charge or a local charge, we're going to pursue it.
How convinced are you that there was some kind of a plan or coordination between at least some of these people?
I don't think there was an overall command and control. However, I would not be surprised if we find loose affiliations of groups that were organized and had plans in place. Look, we saw in some of these individuals we identified — they look paramilitary almost, right? You've got the uniform, you've got communication, you have all the paraphernalia. Those show indications of affiliation and a command and control. So I believe we are going to find those hallmarks. But I think we're weeks, if not months, out to understanding how clear that picture is.
The fact that so many people streamed out of the Capitol afterward, how does that affect your job now in finding people and arresting them?
I don't want to Monday-morning-quarterback what the Capitol Police did when people flooded the Capitol and breached it, destroyed material, stole materials and left. But what I can tell you is, yes, there were very few people that were detained at the time of the incident and hundreds fled without being stopped. So, of course, it makes our job difficult. That's why we have to reengineer what happened through cell site data, social media postings, witness statements, video camera footage. This is a process that's going to take a while. But that's why we've got all hands on deck trying to identify and move very quickly, charging both federal and local charges as soon as possible.
Clearly crimes were committed at the Capitol, but there are people who earnestly believe a lot of the things those people were saying. How do you as a U.S. attorney pursue these cases without this becoming politicized?
You pursue this case like any other case. You remove the politics. I don't want to sound flippant, but it's really not rocket science. You look at the evidence, you gather video, you gather witness statements, you scrub social media. And if that conduct fits a federal or local charge, they're going to be charged, divorced of individual politics.
What's your shorthand for describing what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday? What do you call it?
This is unprecedented. I don't think we've ever seen a "crime scene" with such a diversity of charges, with such a large group of individuals on such a large grounds, in such egregious conduct.
Some people call this a coup. Some call it a riot. Where do you fall in that?
I don't want this tyranny of labels saying this was sedition, this was a coup. But what I will say is, it was criminal. I'm a prosecutor. I'm not a political scientist. But what happened was criminal, and I'll leave the labels, whatever it was, in terms of a coup or sedition, to the political scientists that I'm sure are going to look at this for decades. But as I sit here as a prosecutor, what we've seen and what we'll prove and what we'll charge is criminal conduct.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOB AMBIENCE)
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The sounds of the criminal activity at the Capitol. And the investigation is reaching well outside the rotunda. Because Washington, D.C. is a federal district, the person responsible for prosecuting crimes committed both on federal and local land is the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste spoke to the acting U.S. attorney about the massive effort before him, and Martin joins us now.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martin, you talked to U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin last night. What did he tell you about, I mean, the very scale of this investigation?
KASTE: Well, he thinks there's never been a federal investigation effort quite like this with the number of potential defendants. He thinks that maybe hundreds of people could end up getting charged when this is all said and done. That would be more than during all the protests and disturbances over the whole summer in D.C. And he says also in this case, there's a much wider array of potential crimes.
MICHAEL SHERWIN: We're looking at everything from destruction of property to theft of property to unauthorized, you know, access to restricted areas to potential theft of national security information to potential murder.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about the other kinds of crimes that people have described, like sedition, insurrection?
KASTE: Well, Sherwin says it's not his place to get involved in the politics of words like sedition or coup. But he intends to follow the evidence, he says, to whatever charges are justified. And when you ask him whether he'd also consider charges against, say, an elected official - say, the president for inciting a riot, perhaps - again, he says he'll follow the evidence. And if it's justified, he would. One key aspect that they're still working on, though, is whether these attackers were coordinated or organized somehow.
SHERWIN: Some of these individuals we identified - look. They look paramilitary almost, right? You had the uniform. You've got communication. Those show indications of affiliation and a command and control. So I believe we are going to find those hallmarks. I can't say when. I think it could be weeks, if not months.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Weeks or months. So if any conspiracy-style charges are still a ways off, as he's saying, what are they focusing on right now?
KASTE: Well, right now, the immediate priority is identifying and arresting people who might be immediately violent. He points to the arrest of Lonnie Coffman, a 70-year-old man from Alabama who authorities say had firearms and explosives ready in a truck near the Capitol. I asked Sherwin if the search for people like that is complicated by the fact that so few people were actually arrested at the Capitol on Wednesday, though, and that almost everybody just walked out of there. And he says he doesn't want to Monday-morning-quarterback the Capitol Police, but yeah.
SHERWIN: Hundreds fled without being stopped. So, of course, it makes our job difficult. That's why we have to reengineer what happened through cell site data, social media postings, witness statements, cameras, video camera footage. So this is a process that's going to take a while.
KASTE: Though I should add here that Sherwin also says suspects have sort of been cooperating unwittingly with all the social media stuff they've left online - the selfies, the video streams. Sherwin sort of refers to this desire people have to blast themselves online. Well, this is all evidence. And even if some people are now trying to rush to delete their accounts or their streams online, he says it's - you know, they're gathering all that up. And it's easy for investigators to send preservation orders to the tech companies to save that evidence. And Sherwin says they are doing that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Finally, Martin, did the U.S. attorney have any theories as to the crucial why this happened?
SHERWIN: Well, he didn't have any neat and tidy theory to offer, no. But, you know, when he talked about the tactics of what happened on the Hill on Wednesday, he thinks they may be looking more closely at what happened at certain doorways into the Capitol. There may have been some critical points of failure there.
When it comes to broader preparation for that day, he says they did have intel in law enforcement, some warnings that some people were planning something. But at the same time, I get the sense that he and others didn't see it coming, that this many people would just, as a mob, overrun the U.S. Capitol. It was sort of a carnival atmosphere beforehand when he was in the crowd, he says. And then all of a sudden, this happened. And I think they're going to be studying what happened here for a long time to come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Martin Kaste.
Thank you very much.
KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.