Garland names a special counsel to lead investigations related to Trump

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday appointed a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate, as well as key aspects of a separate investigation related to the Jan. 6, 2021 rioting and efforts to undo the 2020 election.

The appointment of veteran prosecutor Jack Smith, announced just three days after Trump’s 2024 candidacy officially launched, is a recognition of the unmistakable political implications of two investigations involving not just a former president, but a current White House hopeful is involved. It is installing a new chain of command for sensitive probes that are expected to accelerate after the midterm elections conclude, with Garland citing Trump’s entry into the race and President Joe Biden’s stated intention to run again as reasons for Smith’s sudden appointment.

“The Justice Department has long recognized that in certain exceptional cases, it is in the public interest to appoint a special attorney to independently lead an investigation and prosecution,” said Garland from the Justice Department panel.

Smith, who headed the Department of Justice’s public integrity division in Washington and later served as an assistant attorney general in Nashville, Tenn., during the Obama administration, is scheduled to begin work immediately, Garland said. Since 2018 he has been Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court in The Hague, which is charged with investigating international war crimes.

The Justice Department described Smith as a registered independent, an attempt to ward off any attack on perceived political bias. Trump is a Republican and Biden is a Democrat.

“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. “As Special Counsel, he will provide independent prosecutorial judgment to determine whether charges should be filed.”

“The extraordinary circumstances here call for it,” Garland said of the appointment.

In a statement released by the Justice Department, Smith said he intends to do his job independently and “in the best traditions of the Justice Department.”

“The pace of the investigation will not continue or slow down under my supervision,” he vowed.

A Trump spokesman responded to the appointment by calling it “a totally expected political stunt by a helpless, politicized, armed Biden Justice Department.”

As special counsel, Smith will take on two ongoing investigations, both of which involve Trump. One concerns possible interference in the transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election, as Trump’s allies looked for ways to reverse the results of the Biden-winning contest. The other concerns the safekeeping of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Mar-a-Lago investigation has escalated particularly quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Investigators in this case have interviewed a wide array of witnesses and in court filings have cited legal concerns about the presence of top secret materials at Mar-a-Lago, despite strict procedures governing the handling of classified information. They have also alleged attempts to obstruct this investigation.

In his role as Special Counsel, Smith will have the authority to determine whether charges should be filed as part of his investigation and to prosecute any crimes he uncovers. Although Garland would retain ultimate oversight of his work as Attorney General, he emphasized the independent decision-making Smith will bring to bear on the job.

The selection of someone from outside the department for the role of special counsel was notable given the importance Garland has placed on ensuring public trust in his own staff of prosecutors and in Americans after the turbulent years of the Trump administration to assure that its prosecutors’ decisions are based on fact, evidence and the law and are therefore trustworthy.

Nor does there appear to be any apparent conflict like the one that led to the recent appointment of a special counsel for Trump-related investigations.