U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday named former federal prosecutor Jack Smith as special counsel for two ongoing criminal investigations by the Department of Justice of former President Donald Trump.
Smith’s appointment came three days after Trump, a Republican, announced plans to run for president in 2024.
Trump’s move directly led to Garland’s decison to appoint a special counsel, who will recommend whether criminal charges should be lodged against the ex-president.
The attorney general himself was appointed by Biden, a Democrat who defeated Trump in his 2020 re-election bid. Biden could again face Trump again in the 2024 election, although the president has not yet made a final decision on becoming a candidate.
The first investigation that Smith will begin immediately handling is looking into whether any person, including Trump, unlawfully interferred with the transfer of presidential power following the 2020 election, or the certification of the Electoral College vote in President Joe Biden‘s favor on Jan. 6, 2021.
That day, a mob of Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol, disrupting the certification of the Electoral College vote.
The other DOJ probe that Smith will oversee is focused on whether Trump broke the law and obstructed justice in connection with his removal of hundreds of documents from the White House, which were shipped to his residence at Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Mr. Smith is the right choice to complete these matters in an even-handed and urgent matter,” Garland said.
Smith will not be responsible for criminal cases and probes of individuals who were physically present at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot. The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia will continue prosecuting those cases.
In addition to previously serving as a career DOJ prosector, Smith most recently was serving as chief prosecutor for the special court in the Hague, in the Netherlands. In that post, which he resigned to take the special counsel post, he investigated war crimes in Kosovo.
Smith also served with the International Criminal Court, supervising war crimes probes, as chief in the DOJ’s public integrity section, as a senior prosecutor at a U.S. Attorney’s office in Tennessee, a prosecutor in the Brooklyn, New York, U.S. Attorney’s office. He began his career as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Garland revealed the appointment during a public statement from the DOJ.
“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 and investigation and prosecution,” Garland said.
“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.
The attorney general said that he was “confident” that the appointment “will not slow the completion of these investigations.”
“I will ensure that the Special Counsel receives the resources to conduct this work quickly and completely,” Garland said.
A campaign spokesman for Trump, in a statement said, “This is a totally expected political stunt by a feckless, politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice.”
Smith in his own statement said, “I intend to conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them, independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice.”
“The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch,” Smith said. “I will exercise independent judgement and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate.”
A White House official told NBC News on Friday, “DOJ makes decisions about its criminal investigations independently, and we are not involved, so I would refer you to DOJ for any questions on this.”
Barbara McQuade, an NBC News legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, in a Time magazine article on Thursday argued against the idea of a special counsel being appointed in the Trump probes, saying it could potentially delay prosecution so long that he would avoid being held accountable for potential crimes.
“Practical consideration also militate against appointing a special counsel: time,” McQuade wrote.
“Appointing a new lawyer to take over the investigation will create delay. A new lawyer would need to hire his own staff, all of whom would need time to get up to speed,” she wrote.
“If Trump is seeking to regain the Oval Office, then DOJ must complete not only the investigations, but the trials before Jan. 20, 2025. That’s when a newly sworn in President Trump could take the ultimate act of partisanship in prosecution — and pardon himself.”