Mr. Garland took control of the legal side of the case the next morning. The Simpson case was fresh in his mind. In this unfolding drama, the defense pointed to a series of mistakes by Los Angeles police and prosecutors. The issue of law enforcement incompetence and misconduct was very much in the air, and Mr. Garland knew that the public — and future jurors — would view the bomb case through that filter. He didn’t want the agents to risk a judge later finding their searches illegal and hiding the evidence they found. So he issues search warrants for nearly every step agents take in the investigation. It was tedious and perhaps unnecessary, but Mr. Garland made sure that propriety was observed.
The pattern was set for the rest of the investigation — and the rest of Mr. Garland’s career: diligent work behind the scenes and extreme rhetorical restraint in public. A few days after arriving in Oklahoma, Mr. Garland served as a prosecutor in Mr. McVeigh’s bail hearing. In light of the seriousness of the charges, there was no chance that Mr. McVeigh would be released, but Mr. Garland did his best to talk about the case in an almost deliberately dull manner. “You have heard evidence, your honor,” he told the court, “more than sufficient to establish that during and in connection with a crime of violence the defendant used and carried a destructive device—that is, a bomb.” On the issue of release under bail he said: “Your honour, as everyone knows, he faces the possibility of the death penalty in this case and a huge incentive to flee. The government presents no condition that would prevent a person in this situation from escaping.
Mr. Garland was so involved in the bombing case that he considered asking Ms. Gorelick for the chance to stay on as chief prosecutor in the courtroom. But his boss had other plans because the Unabomber investigation was falling apart. Beginning in 1978, a series of bombs were mailed to various university and airline targets across the country. From 1987 to 1993, the bombings stopped, but then started again, including one that killed a Sacramento man on April 24, 1995, five days after the Oklahoma City bombing. The Justice Department was embarrassed by its failure to catch the mystery perpetrator, and Ms. Gorelick told Mr. Garland to take over, which he did. (Ted Kaczynski was arrested for the April 3, 1996, bombings of his small cabin in Montana.)
For the trials of Mr. McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing, Mr. Garland helped select a prosecution team led by Joseph Hartzler and Larry Mackie, who never became as famous as the OJ prosecutors, but won verdicts in court. (Mr. McVeigh was executed in 2001; Mr. Nichols is serving a life sentence without parole.) Mr. Garland received a nice consolation prize for losing the trials. In September 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated him to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second-highest court, although he was not confirmed until March 1997. Mr. Garland’s tenure as a judge solidified the trends he found in the bombing investigation: meticulousness in gathering facts and reluctance to express opinions.
That’s what happened to Mr. Garland as attorney general, especially when it came to the Trump investigation. Since taking office, Mr. Garland has been criticized for the slow pace of the investigation and his failure to prosecute those who inspired or instigated the Capitol attack, as he focused instead on those who stormed the building. This criticism seems unfair, or at least premature. Mr. Garland has hardly retreated from the post-Yan. 6 investigation. He sanctioned the prosecution of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on the rare charge of seditious conspiracy; authorized the search of Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Florida home; and appointed Jack Smith, an aggressive prosecutor, to lead the investigations. A fair verdict for Mr. Garland must await the outcome of Mr. Smith’s work.