Merrick Garland appoints special counsel for two Trump investigations

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Merrick Garland taps war-crimes prosecutor as special counsel for two Trump investigations

Just a few days ago, legal experts told Grid that Donald Trump’s early presidential announcement certainly seemed like an attempt to assuage his legal troubles. Now, the Department of Justice has introduced its own workaround.

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday announced the appointment of a special counsel for two long-running investigations involving Trump, citing the conflicts of the burgeoning 2024 presidential campaign.

“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 have concluded it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel,” Garland said on Friday. “Such an appointment underscores the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.”

The question of whether Garland will bring charges against the former president has been one of the biggest questions facing him as attorney general.

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The appointment of a special counsel put that responsibility on someone else.

Jack Smith, an experienced former federal prosecutor, will lead the Department of Justice’s politically sensitive investigations into efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the handling of sensitive documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Smith is the former acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee and a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague.

Garland spoke for less than 10 minutes without taking questions on Friday, using careful language to describe the scope of the two investigations.

One investigation concerns “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 Jan. 6, 2021,” Garland said, and the other is the “ongoing investigation involving classified documents and other presidential records — as well as the possible obstruction of that investigation.”

Trump has a well-documented history of portraying himself as a victim of politically motivated “witch hunt” attacks whenever his actions have come under investigative scrutiny. While Trump’s announcement may have been an effort to make it more difficult to bring charges against him, legal experts have said those efforts are unlikely to be successful.

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Trump’s announcement came 721 days prior to Election Day, making it one of the earliest presidential campaign announcements in modern political history. He announced his 2020 candidacy 504 days before Election Day and his 2016 candidacy 511 days prior to the general election.

The federal investigations are not the end of Trump’s legal trouble. He faces a mounting list of legal challenges including a fast-moving state investigation in Georgia by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis into efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Smith most recently worked as a specialist prosecutor at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, a temporary court organized at The Hague with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Kosovo between 1998 and 2000.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the State University of New York at Oneonta, Smith’s past positions also include chief of the public integrity section of the U.S. Department of Justice and Investigation Coordinator in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, according to a biography published by the Kosovo court.

“I intend to conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them, independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice,” Smith said in a short written statement Friday. “The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.