WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel on Friday 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 probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
The appointment of veteran prosecutor Jack Smith, announced just three days after Trump formally launched his 2024 candidacy, is a recognition of the unmistakable political implications of two investigations that involve not only a former president but also a current White House hopeful. It installs a new chain of command over sensitive probes seen as likely to accelerate now that the midterm elections have concluded, with Garland citing Trump's entry into the race and President Joe Biden's stated intention to run again as reasons for Smith's appointment.
"The Department of Justice has long recognized that in certain extraordinary cases, it is in the public’s interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution," Garland said from the Justice Department’s podium.
Smith, who led the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington and later served as the acting chief federal prosecutor in Nashville, Tennessee, during the Obama administration, is set to begin his work immediately, Garland said. He has been serving since 2018 as chief prosecutor for the special court in the Hague that is tasked with investigating international war crimes.
The Justice Department described Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of 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 exercise independent prosecutorial judgment to decide whether charges should be brought."
"The extraordinary circumstances here demand it," Garland said of the appointment.
In a statement released by the Justice Department, Smith said he intended to do his work independently and "in the best traditions of the Department of Justice."
"The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch," he vowed.
A Trump spokesperson responded to the appointment by calling it "a totally expected political stunt by a feckless, politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice."
As special counsel, Smith will inherit two ongoing probes that both touch Trump. One concerns potential interference in the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election, when Trump allies scrambled for ways to overturn the results of the contest won by Biden, and the other is into the retention of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
The Mar-a-Lago probe has escalated especially quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Investigators in that case have interviewed a broad range of witnesses and, in court filings, have cited the presence of top-secret materials in Mar-a-Lago despite strict procedures governing the handling of classified information — as well as efforts to obstruct that probe.
Though Smith will be empowered to prosecute federal crimes arising from his investigation, Garland still retains ultimate oversight of his work. Under federal regulations, should the attorney general reject any proposed investigative move by Smith, the department would then be required to notify members of Congress.
Lanny Breuer, who led the department's criminal division when Smith ran the public integrity section, called Smith "an exquisite lawyer and an exquisite prosecutor."
"He’s not political at all," Breuer said. "He’s straight down the middle."
The appointment of a special counsel is likely to raise questions with members of Congress eager for updates on the status of the investigations. And the decision to appoint someone from outside the department was notable given how Garland has repeatedly stressed his determination to restore political independence to the agency following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.
And there does not seem to be an obvious conflict like the one that prompted the last appointment of a special counsel to handle Trump-related investigations. The Trump Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, a nod to the inherent conflict of the department investigating the president who controls the executive branch.
Smith grew up in upstate New York and graduated from Harvard Law School. He told The Associated Press in 2010 that he saw the role of a prosecutor as serving people like his parents and others he grew up with in the town of Clay.
"They pay their taxes, follow the rules, and they expect their public officials to do the same," he said then.
He had been brought into the Justice Department at the time to see the department’s then-troubled Public Integrity Section, which was battered publicly for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence in the criminal trial of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican. Supporters lauded him as apolitical and hardworking.
Smith wouldn’t discuss the cases he was overseeing, though the public integrity unit during his tenure ended several long-running investigations of high-profile political figures including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
When there isn’t sufficient evidence to bring a case, "you have to be able to admit that if it’s not there, it’s not there," Smith said. "I think that’s hard for people to do, and having been a prosecutor for 15 years that is something I can do."