Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigations into Donald Trump just days after the former president announced his intent to seek the office again in 2024.
Garland said Jack Smith, a longtime prosecutor and current war crimes investigator, would take the helm of two investigations, one into the mishandling of sensitive government records at Mar-a-Lago, as well as aspects of its investigation into Jan. 6., 2021 covering “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power.”
Garland directly pointed to Trump’s announcement and a potential rematch election with President Biden as among the “extraordinary circumstances” that justify such an appointment.
“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 that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel,” Garland said.
“Such an appointment underscores the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.”
The move is sure to surprise legal observers, many of whom have been vocal in suggesting that it would be of little benefit to the Justice Department.
Trump erupted over the news, telling Fox News Digital in a Friday interview that he’s the victim of ongoing government witch-hunt.
“I have been going through this for six years — for six years I have been going through this, and I am not going to go through it anymore,” Trump said. “And I hope the Republicans have the courage to fight this.”
“I am not going to partake in it,” he added. “I’m not going to partake in this.”
Smith, who was investigating war crimes in Kosovo through a post at The Hague, has resigned from that role, and will be returning to the U.S.
A veteran prosecutor, he has been working his way through the ranks at DOJ since 1994, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York and eventually a U.S. attorney in Tennessee.
Smith’s new role will put him at the center of what is sure to be a political firestorm, with the recent Robert Mueller investigation into Trump showing the mechanics for those in the GOP who may wish to discredit any such probes.
“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 statement.
“The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch. I will exercise independent judgement and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate.”
The appointment of a special counsel comes after Trump has already been shown an unusual degree of deference by the legal system, with the Justice Department spending months communicating with his legal team about the missing records and searching his Florida home only after his team flouted a subpoena requesting the return of all records. And a judge later appointed a special master to review the more than 10,000 government records found on the property — a decision DOJ is challenging.
The special counsel will still report to Garland, a detail critics say assures the Justice Department will be unable to sidestep inevitable complaints from Trump allies who have already spent years echoing the former president’s claims that the department is politicized.
It’s also sure to complicate matters for a Justice Department that may be eager to bring any eventual prosecutions well before the 2024 election cycle heats up.
Garland sought to address that in his remarks at the Justice Department’s Great Hall.
“I will ensure that the special counsel receives the resources to conduct this work quickly and completely. Given the work to date and Mr. Smith’s prosecutorial experience, I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations,” he said.
Skeptics — who voiced concern as soon as reports that DOJ was mulling a special counsel first began circulating — have said that making such an appointment in order to shield from complaints of bias was a fool’s errand.
“It certainly is not going to prevent Trump Land from crying ‘political.’ They could have appointed Mahatma Gandhi and he would have been criticized as a Biden stooge,” Jeff Robbins, an attorney now in private practice who has served as both a federal prosecutor and a Senate investigative counsel, told The Hill.
“But perhaps it will help at the margins, among Americans who don’t feel as though they have a dog in the hunt, to persuade some people to reject the charge that the indictments, if they are forthcoming, are nothing more than ‘politics,’ brought by someone whom Biden directly appointed.”
Michael Bromwich, who served as the Justice Department’s inspector general during the Clinton administration and as a prosecutor for the independent counsel that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, previously told The Hill the choice may do little to shield the department.
“If the appointment of independent counsel was meant to forestall criticism, that wouldn’t work anyway,” he said, calling it a “no win” situation for Garland as people who “don’t like any prosecutor who decides to charge Trump are going to find a way to dislike it.”
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, defended the move on Twitter, calling it a sign of serious intentions from the Justice Department.
“If Merrick Garland didn’t think there was a serious possibility that Trump would be indicted, he wouldn’t have appointed a special counsel. He didn’t appoint Jack Smith to wind down these investigations,” he wrote.
“A special counsel offers some measure of independence and transparency, which is a good thing. I don’t believe a special counsel will significantly delay an investigation of Trump. The investigation is far along, and the same FBI agents can work for the special counsel.”
Trump had pointed to the Justice Department when kicking off his 2024 campaign, complaining “I am a victim” and listing the FBI among the “gravest threats to our civilization.”
“Nothing is greater than the weaponization from the system, the FBI or the DOJ. We must conduct a top-to-bottom overhaul to clean out the festering rods and corruption of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
“The journey ahead of us will not be easy,” Trump added. “Anyone who truly seeks to take on this rigged and corrupt system will be faced with a storm of fire that only a few could understand.”
The mechanics of the special counsel investigation aren’t entirely clear, including how it would be staffed and whether the existing line attorneys on the case would essentially shift over.
Garland did, however, say that the special counsel would not oversee the prosecution of those who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“This does not include prosecutions that are currently pending in the District of Columbia, or future investigations and prosecutions of individuals for offenses committed while they were physically present in the capital grounds on Jan. 6,” he said.
Updated at 4:50 p.m.