At a news conference on Friday afternoon, United States Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of prosecutor Jack Smith as special counsel in two investigations concerning former President Donald Trump.
The first investigation concerns whether “any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election”.
The second delves into whether Trump mishandled classified documents and other presidential records following his departure from office, as well as whether he obstructed an investigation into those documents.
“It is in the public interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution 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 stated intention to be a candidate as well,” Garland said.
In the wake of his 2020 defeat, Trump falsely claimed that the election was “stolen”, stoking conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the ballot count.
Such claims helped spur the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol, when Trump supporters attempted to stop Congress from confirming Biden as president. Trump’s involvement in that attack and the events leading up to it are part of the continuing investigation.
Throughout the news conference, Garland underscored that the special counsel “will exercise independent prosecutorial judgement to decide whether charges should be brought”. Garland also said that the special counsel will be empowered to “prosecute any federal crimes that may arise from those investigations”.
Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan said Garland’s decision to distance himself from the investigations and appoint a special counsel aims to avert a “perceived conflict of interest”.
“This is a situation where the Justice Department is trying to make certain that this work is completed but that there is not any way of accusing the department of trying to tilt the scales for or against Donald Trump, or [of] working at the specific behest of Joe Biden,” Jordan said.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters later on Friday that Biden had “no reaction” to Garland’s announcement, referring their questions instead to the US Justice Department.
“I just want to make very, very clear: We were not given advance notice. The Department of Justice makes their own decision when it relates to criminal investigations. We were not involved,” Jean-Pierre said.
Trump, meanwhile, suggested that he will not “partake” in the special counsel’s probes. “It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political,” he told Fox News in the wake of Garland’s announcement.
Trump also called the special counsel appointment a “rigged deal”.
“This horrendous abuse of power is the latest in a long series 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.
Smith, the newly appointed special counsel, currently served at Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, Netherlands, where he investigates war crimes cases. Previously, he worked as the chief of the Public Integrity Section for the US Department of Justice from 2010 and 2015.
Smith will return to the US immediately to head the investigations.
In his remarks, Garland described Smith “as an impartial and determined prosecutor who leads teams with energy and focus to follow the facts wherever they lead”.
He also cited Smith’s previous work with the US Department of Justice, where “he led a team of more than 30 prosecutors who handled public corruption and election crimes”.
“Given the work to date and Mr Smith’s prosecutorial experience, I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations,” Garland said.
“The men and women who are pursuing these investigations are conducting themselves in accordance with the highest standards of professionalism. I could not be prouder of them.”