Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Friday that he is putting a special counsel in charge of multiple ongoing Justice Department investigations involving former President Donald Trump.
At a press conference, Garland told reporters that he has appointed veteran prosecutor Jack Smith to oversee the department’s probe involving classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate, and the potential obstruction of that investigation, as well as a separate investigation into efforts to stop the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election, or the Electoral College vote certification on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The Department of Justice has long recognized that in certain, extraordinary cases, it is in the public interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution,” Garland said.
The announcement comes just days after Trump announced his third bid for the White House.
Some have speculated that the Justice Department investigations may have, in part, motivated the former president to launch his 2024 campaign so early, despite many of the Republican candidates he backed suffering major losses in last week’s midterm elections.
In his speech announcing his candidacy on Tuesday, Trump complained that he was a “victim” of the “weaponization of the justice system.”
Speaking to Fox News after Garland's announcement on Friday, Trump said he "won't partake" in the Justice Department's investigations and claimed the probes are politically-motivated.
"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."
The Justice Department is not legally barred from investigating a presidential candidate, but Garland acknowledged the political complications in his remarks.
“Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he's 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.”
Asked about Garland's appointment of a special counsel, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was not given advance notice of Garland's decision and referred questions to the Justice Department.
Garland said that Smith, who most recently investigated war crimes in Kosovo as chief prosecutor for the Special Court in the Hague, “has built a reputation as an impartial independent prosecutor.”
“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,” Garland said.
In a statement released Friday, Smith said that 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 FBI conducted a search on Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., in early August. A search warrant and property receipt from the FBI’s search showed that agents seized nearly two dozen boxes from Trump’s home, including 11 sets of classified records, some of which were labeled “top secret,” the highest level of classification reserved for the most closely held national security information.
The warrant indicated that the former president is under investigation by the Justice Department for several potential crimes, including possible violations of the Espionage Act and potential obstruction of justice charges.
The DOJ is also investigating Trump’s actions as part of its larger criminal probe into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Specifically, Garland said that Smith will lead the investigation into “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election, or with the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about January 6.” He clarified that this does not include the hundreds of pending prosecutions, or future investigations of individuals who participated in the riot on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.
The House select committee that is probing the insurrection is also weighing whether to make criminal referrals to the DOJ along with evidence it has collected in its 17-month investigation.
In an October court filing, the panel asserted that its members believe there is enough evidence to suggest that the former president might have engaged in a criminal conspiracy as he fought to remain in office.
Cover Thumbnail Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters, Rebecca Blackwell/AP