Updated Nov 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

AG Merrick Garland names special counsel in Trump criminal probes

Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

Former president Donald Trump speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Photo: Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Friday that he is appointing veteran prosecutor Jack Smith as a special counsel to oversee the federal criminal investigations into former President Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election and handling of classified documents.

Why it matters: The appointment of a special counsel is intended to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, and comes three days after Trump launched his 2024 presidential campaign.

  • The special counsel will take over two of the most explosive investigations involving a former president in modern political history.
  • Representatives for Trump did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Details: Smith will be tasked with prosecuting federal crimes that arise from the investigations, Garland said at a news conference Friday.

  • “I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations,” he added.
  • “The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch. I will exercise independent judgment and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate," Smith said in a statement, per MSNBC.

Zoom in: Smith most recently served as a chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague, where he investigated war crimes in Kosovo, Garland said.

  • From 2010 to 2015, Smith worked with the Justice Department as chief of the public integrity section, where he managed a team of more than 30 prosecutors "who handled public corruption and election crimes cases" in the U.S., Garland said.
  • In that position, Smith oversaw the case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was convicted in 2015 of disclosing national defense information and obstructing justice.
  • “Mr. Smith is the right choice to complete these matters in an even-handed and urgent manner,” Garland said.

What he said: Garland said Trump's recent 2024 campaign announcement and President Biden's intention to run again made him feel "that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

  • "Such an important appointment underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability and particularly sensitive matters," he said.

Former President Trump told Fox News Digital on Friday that he "won’t partake" in the investigation, calling it "the worst politicization of justice in our country."

  • "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 told Fox News.
  • Trump said the announcement of a special counsel is "not even believable."
  • "I have never heard of such a thing. They found nothing. I announce and then they appoint a special prosecutor," he said. "They found nothing, and now they take some guy who hates Trump. This is a disgrace and only happening because I am leading in every poll in both parties."

Separately, Andrew Weissmann, who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller's team during the Russian investigation, said in a tweet that Smith "is a very aggressive prosecutor who represents the best of the Department."

Worth noting: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that President Biden and the White House were not aware beforehand of the DOJ's plan and did not have advance notice about Garland's appointment.

Flashback: This is the third time the DOJ will have appointed a special counsel to handle matters related to Trump.

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign's ties to Russia dominated the first half of his presidency.
  • Former Attorney General Bill Barr later appointed special counsel John Durham to investigate allegations of FBI impropriety in the Russia probe.

State of play: The DOJ's investigation of whether Trump illegally took government documents containing national security secrets to his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida is viewed by experts as the most acute legal threat the former president currently faces.

  • A special master has been appointed to review the documents, which the FBI seized after executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August.
  • Federal prosecutors have also subpoenaed dozens of Trump allies in the DOJ's wide-ranging investigation of efforts to subvert the 2020 election leading up to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

Between the lines: Trump allies, including Republicans in the House who just took the majority in last week's midterms, have accused the Justice Department of a politicized "witch hunt" against the former president. Those allegations aren't likely to subside, even with Garland taking this precaution.

Go deeper: Inside Trump's dicey 2024 campaign announcement

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Garland and additional details about the special counsel.

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