US Justice Dept. appoints war crimes expert as special counsel for Trump investigations

  • Trump calls appointment of special counsel ‘abuse of power’
  • Special Counsel Smith has focused on war crimes in Kosovo

WASHINGTON, Nov 18 (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday appointed Jack Smith, a war crimes prosecutor, to serve as special counsel to oversee Justice Department investigations related to Donald Trump, including the former president’s handling of sensitive documents and efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Garland’s announcement came three days after Trump, a Republican, announced he would run for president again in 2024. Garland said Trump’s candidacy, as well as Democratic President Biden’s stated intention to run for re-election, made the appointment of a special lawyer necessary.

Special counsels are sometimes appointed to investigate politically sensitive cases, and they carry out their work with some independence from Justice Department leadership.

“The pace of the investigations will not pause or falter under my watch,” Smith said in a statement. “I will exercise independent judgment and will expedite the investigations promptly and thoroughly to the outcome that the facts and the law dictate.”

Smith will oversee the investigation into Trump’s handling of government documents after leaving the White House last year and the investigation into attempts to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election, Garland said.

“Appointing a special counsel at this time is the right thing to do,” Garland, who was appointed by Biden, told a news conference.

Trump called the appointment of a special counsel a “rigged deal.”

“This horrific abuse of power is the latest in a long line of witch hunts that started a long time ago,” he told a crowd of supporters at a black-tie event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Biden did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about the special counsel during his only public appearance of the day. The White House was not involved in the decision to appoint Smith, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Smith, a political independent, until recently served as chief prosecutor of the special court in The Hague tasked with prosecuting war crimes in Kosovo. He previously oversaw the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Division and worked as a federal and state prosecutor in New York.

It is the second time in five years that the Justice Department has appointed a special counsel to investigate Trump’s conduct. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, appointed a special counsel in 2017, documented contacts between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, but found insufficient evidence to bring criminal conspiracy charges.

FBI agents seized thousands of government documents, some marked highly classified, from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home during a court-authorized search on August 8. Investigators are also looking into Trump for possible obstruction of the probe. Trump filed a civil lawsuit in an attempt to delay the document review and keep some records away from investigators.

The second investigation is a sweeping investigation into a failed plot by Trump allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election by submitting batches of fake electoral rolls to the US National Archives and trying to block Congress from confirming Biden’s election victory.

A grand jury is hearing evidence in the case, where prosecutors are issuing testimony subpoenas to former top White House lawyers and close advisers to Vice President Mike Pence.

POLITICAL DISTANCE

While Garland ultimately has authority over the special counsel, the appointment of Smith could allow Garland to create some political distance that could bolster public confidence in the integrity of the two investigations. Career prosecutors are expected to continue working on the investigation along with Smith.

Smith recently underwent surgery after injuring a knee in a bicycle accident. He did not attend the press conference.

The array of criminal and civil state and federal investigations against Trump also includes a civil lawsuit by the New York attorney general accusing him and three of his adult children of fraud involving the family’s real estate business.

Smith is the Justice Department’s third special counsel appointed since 2017 to handle a politically sensitive case. Mueller did not explicitly reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, prompting then-Attorney General William Barr to make his own decision that there was no basis for such a charge.

In 2019, Barr appointed John Durham as special counsel to investigate the origins of the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign in 2016. Of the three criminal cases brought by Durham, two resulted in acquittals this year.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Rami Ayub; Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Brad Brooks, Trevor Hunnicutt and Joseph Axe; Editing by Will Dunham, Andy Sullivan and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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