WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that he appointed veteran prosecutor Jack Smith as special counsel for two ongoing federal investigations involving former President Donald Trump, just days after Trump announced his reelection bid.
“Based on recent developments, including the former president’s announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election, and the sitting president’s stated intention to be a candidate as well, I’ve concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel,” Garland said in a brief televised statement delivered from the Justice Department.
Smith, a former head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and a former chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague, is returning to Washington to take over both investigations immediately, the attorney general said.
The first inquiry is centered on whether “any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote, held on or about January 6, 2021,” Garland said, referring to efforts by Trump and his associates to overturn the outcome of the last presidential vote.
The second probe involves Trump’s handling of classified documents and other records, as well as possible efforts to obstruct the federal investigation. In the classified documents case, prosecutors are looking into several potential crimes including a violation of the Espionage act.
While defending the work of the current prosecutors and investigators leading the investigations, Garland said “appointing a special counsel at this time is the right thing to do. “The extraordinary circumstances presented here demand it,” Garland, flanked by top Justice Department officials, said.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged in either case.
In remarks to a group of supporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, the former president blasted the appointment as a “horrendous abuse of power in a long series of witch hunts.”
He said he thought both investigations were over “only to find out that the corrupt and highly political Justice Department just appointed a super radical left special counsel better referred to as a special prosecutor to start the process all over again.
The Justice Department has given no indication that either investigation has wound down.
During Trump’s first two years in office, former special counsel Robert Mueller became a thorn in his side as he investigated alleged ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. In the end, Mueller found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
Smith’s appointment as special counsel came three days after Trump announced his third run for president, raising questions about whether the Justice Department under the Biden administration can conduct a fair and impartial investigation of a potential rival of the current president.
While the department conducts its investigations independently from the White House, Garland is a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the president.
Garland said the appointment of a special counsel “underscores the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.”
“It also allows prosecutors and agents to continue their work expeditiously and to make their decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law,” Garland said.
A special counsel is a prosecutor appointed to investigate an alleged violation of federal law when a conflict of interest prevents the Justice Department from undertaking the probe.
Under Justice Department regulations, a special counsel can only be fired by the attorney general or a designee.
While the special counsel enjoys a certain degree of independence and often operates outside the Justice Department, he reports to the attorney general and any charges he brings are subject to the chief law enforcement officer’s approval.
In a statement, Smith said he would “conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them, independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice.”
“The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch,” Smith said. “I will exercise independent judgement and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate.”
Smith has been a prosecutor for nearly three decades. A 1994 graduate of Harvard Law School, he took his first job in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn.
From 2008 to 2010, Smith served as Investigation Coordinator in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague where he supervised sensitive investigations of foreign government officials and militia for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, according to his biography on the special prosecutor’s office website.
In 2010, Smith returned to the Justice Department to lead the public integrity section for five years. The unit is responsible for prosecuting public corruption and election crimes.
In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after he took the job, Smith said he had “a dream job” with the International Criminal Court but “left it for a better one.”
The unit prosecutes dozens of corruption cases a year. During Smith’s tenure, the section obtained convictions against former Governor Robert McDonnell of Virginia and former Representative Rick Renzi of Arizona.
But when a case is not prosecutable, Smith told the paper at the time, “you have to be able to admit that if it’s not there, it’s not there.”
Between February 2015 and August 2017, Smith served as first assistant U.S. attorney and then as acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, according to his biography.
In 2018, he returned to the International Criminal Court, where he was appointed to a four-year term as chief prosecutor for war crimes in Kosovo and received a second four-year appointment in May 2022.
The special counsel position is by far the most high-profile appointment of Smith’s career. Garland said Smith is up to the job.
“Throughout his career Jack Smith has built a reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor who leads teams with energy and focus to follow the facts wherever they lead,” Garland said.
Kimberly Wehle, an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation in the 1990s and a University of Baltimore law professor, said Garland’s decision to appoint a special counsel suggests the Justice Department remains laser-focused on the Trump investigations.
“Garland has now drawn a public line: DOJ has sights on Trump,” Wehle wrote in an email to VOA. “The order appointing a special counsel requires a written statement of jurisdiction, so we know what Jack Smith must do: decide whether to indict.”
Garland has avoided answering questions about the Trump investigation or whether the former president will be indicted. But in July, when asked about the investigation, he repeatedly said that “no person is above the law in this country.”
John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while the special counsel appointment creates distance between the attorney general and the investigations, it is unlikely to placate concerns among Trump supporters and others that the probe is politically motivated.
“There are many people who think that this is an attempt to punish a former rival and potential future rival [of U.S. President Joe Biden], and that this is the criminalization of the political process, but we’ll see how the investigation is conducted and what charges if any are brought,” Malcolm said in an interview with VOA.