Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to take over investigations involving Donald Trump

Garland podium
Attorney General Merrick Garland tightened Justice Department policies to prevent political appointees from attending partisan events.Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Attorney General Merrick Garland will appoint a special counsel to oversee criminal cases involving Trump.

  • Garland appointed Jack Smith, a veteran federal prosecutor who has served since 2018 as chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague.

  • Smith's term as special counsel begins immediately.

Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsel Friday to oversee criminal investigations involving former President Donald Trump, including the inquiry into his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

Garland appointed Jack Smith, a veteran federal prosecutor who has served since 2018 as chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague charged with investigating war crimes committed in Kosovo. Smith previously headed the Justice Department's public integrity section, which handled investigations into corruption and election-related crimes across the country.

As special counsel, Smith will also preside over key aspects of the investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump announced his third presidential run in a Tuesday night speech at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

"Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is 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 Friday.

Following his role as chief of the public integrity section, Smith served as a top federal prosecutor in Tennessee and later became the acting US attorney in Nashville.

Registered to vote as an independent, Smith resigned from his role at The Hague and begins immediately as special counsel.

For the past several months, the Justice Department has investigated Trump's hoarding of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and, as part of the January 6 inquiry, scrutinized efforts by his political allies to overturn the 2020 election results. The Justice Department has taken those steps with Trump teasing a third presidential run, and the confirmation of his plans to run again for the White House did nothing to lessen his legal jeopardy, former prosecutors told Insider.

But the confirmation of Trump's 2024 bid did have the effect of throwing fuel on considerations inside the Justice Department about appointing a special counsel to oversee investigations involving a former president intent on a rematch with President Joe Biden.

Trump's formal entry into the 2024 race presented a "pretty stark conflict of interest for the department" and a need to appoint a special counsel, said Randall Eliason, a law professor at George Washington University and former top public corruption prosecutor in the US attorney's office in Washington, DC.

"This will give a degree of separation from the Biden administration that would cause the public to have some increased confidence in whatever decision is made — and that's the purpose of the whole special counsel regime," Eliason told Insider.

As special counsel, Smith will still report to Garland.

For Garland, who has centered his tenure on ushering the Justice Department out of the politicization of the Trump era, the appointment of a special counsel was a step underscoring what he called the department's "commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters."

"It also allows prosecutors and agents to continue their work expeditiously, and to make decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law," Garland said Friday.

Amid speculation about a special counsel appointment, some legal experts — including Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor who once taught Garland — cautioned that such a move would delay the investigations into Trump.

Garland appeared to address those concerns on Friday, saying he would ensure that Smith receives the "resources to conduct this work quickly and completely."

"Given the work done to date and Mr. Smith's prosecutorial experience, I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations," Garland said.

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