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.
“I strongly believe that the normal processes of this department can handle all investigations with integrity, and I also believe that appointing a special counsel at this time is the right thing to do. The extraordinary circumstances presented here demand it,” Garland said in a brief televised statement.
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 the investigations immediately, the attorney general said.
The first investigation 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.
Trump has not been charged in either case.
“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, flanked by top Justice Department officials.
Garland’s announcement came three days after Trump unveiled his candidacy, a move that has complicated the Justice Department’s ability to investigate the former and potential future 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.
The appointment of a special counsel “underscores the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters,” Garland said. “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.”
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.
‘I will exercise independent judgement’
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.”
Trump took to Fox News Digital to blast the appointment.
“I have been going through this for six years — six years I have been going through this, and I am not going to go through it anymore,” the former president said. “And I hope the Republicans have the courage to fight this.”
Former special counsel Robert Mueller became a thorn in Trump’s side as he investigated alleged ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. In the end, he found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
Kimberly Wehle, an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation in the 1990s and a University of Baltimore law professor, said Garland’s appointment of a special counsel suggests the Justice Department remains laser focused on Trump.
“Garland has now drawn a public line: DOJ has sights on Trump,” she said via email. “The order appointing a special counsel requires a written statement of jurisdiction, so we know what Jack Smith must do: decide whether to indict.”
‘No person is above the law’
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 appointment creates distance between the attorney general and the investigations, it’s 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 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.