Trump special counsel: What is being investigated and what is the time scale?

On Friday, US Attorney General Merrick Garlandannounced the nomination of Jack Smith to serve as special counsel to determine whether to charge former president Donald Trump with crimes.

Mr Smith has served in numerous roles in the Department of Justice and the International Criminal Court. The news opens a new chapter in the multiple investigations into potential wrongdoing by the former president.

The appointment of Mr Smith also comes three days after Mr Trump announced that he would again seek the presidency in 2024.

Here’s what we know about what the special counsel will investigate.

What the special counsel is investigating

Mr Garland announced that Mr Smith will manage two probles.

“The investigation into 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,” he said, as well as an “ongoing investigation involving classified documents and other presidential records as well as the possible obstruction of an investigation referenced and described in court filings in a pending manner in the Southern District of Florida.”

Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election culminated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Getty Images)
Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election culminated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Getty Images)

Mr Trump is currently the subject of a probe into whether his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, which resulted in the deadly riot at the US Capitol on 6 January of last year, amounted to criminal activity. Specifically the department looking into his attempts to forge electoral college certificates to the National Archives.

Furthermore, in August, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

Boxes full of government documents, some top secret, were discovered at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home (AP)
Boxes full of government documents, some top secret, were discovered at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home (AP)

The Justice Department revealed that the Justice Department found “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as confidential, 92 documents marked as secret, and 25 documents marked as top secret.” The Department also said that it feared that documents stored at Mar-a-Lago could compromise “clandestine human services” in intelligence gathering.

Why did the Department of Justice bring in a special counsel?

Mr Garland said his decision came because of the fact that Mr Trump announced he would seek the presidency in 2024 and President Joe Biden’s statement that he intends to run for another term as president.

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

Mr Garland added that the appointment would prosecutors and agents to make decisions independently.

“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 based on recent developments.”

Who is Jack Smith

Mr Smith is an experienced prosecutor at the Justice Department who has also worked at the Hague. From 2010 to 2015, Mr Smith served as the Department of Justice’s public integrity section.

Jack Smith has been named special counsel to oversee criminal investigations into Donald Trump (AP)
Jack Smith has been named special counsel to oversee criminal investigations into Donald Trump (AP)

In that capacity, he helped convict former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell on bribery charges, though the Supreme Court later threw out the case, among others. Similarly, Mr Trump pardoned former representative Rick Renzi of Arizona after Mr Smith helped convict him. He currently serves as a “specialist prosecutor” over at The Hague, where he has been overseeing war crimes cases since 2018.

How long will it take?

It is not entirely clear how long the special counsel’s investigation can take.

Ken Starr served as an independent counsel for the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration for four years. Former FBI director Robert Mueller led a special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election from May 2017 to May 2019.

But The Washington Post reported that some within the Department of Justice did not want Mr Garland to appoint a special counsel since it would bring the investigation dangerously close to the 2024 presidential election.