U.S. Justice Dept. names war crimes expert as special counsel for Trump probes

  • Trump called appointment of special counsel ‘abuse of power’
  • Special Counsel Smith focuses on war crimes in Kosovo

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

Garland’s announcement came three days after Republican Trump announced he would run for president again in 2024. Garland said the appointment of a special counsel was necessary because of Democratic President Biden’s stated intent to contest Trump’s candidacy and reelection.

Special counsels are sometimes appointed to investigate politically sensitive cases and do their work independently of Justice Department leadership.

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

Garland said Smith will oversee the investigation into Trump’s handling of government records after leaving the White House last year and efforts to obstruct a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election.

“Appointing a special counsel is the right thing to do at this time,” Biden-appointed Garland said at a news conference.

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

“This appalling abuse of power is just the latest in a long line of witch hunts that began 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 reporters’ shouted questions about the special counsel during his only public appearance of the day. The White House was not involved in the decision to hire 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, 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.

This marks 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, who was named special counsel in 2017, documented contacts between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, but found insufficient evidence to bring charges of criminal conspiracy.

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FBI agents seized thousands of government documents, some marked highly classified, from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home during a court-approved Aug. 8 search. Investigators are probing Trump for possible obstruction of the investigation. Trump filed a civil lawsuit in an attempt to delay the investigation into the documents and keep some of the documents away from investigators.

The other investigation is a sprawling probe into the failed attempt by Trump’s allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election by submitting batches of phony voter slates to the US National Archives and trying to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory.

A grand jury is hearing testimony in that case, with prosecutors issuing testimony subpoenas to a top former White House lawyer and a close adviser to Vice President Mike Pence.

Political distance

Although Garland will ultimately have authority over the special counsel, Smith’s appointment will allow Garland to create some political distance that will increase public confidence in the integrity of the two investigations. Career prosecutors are expected to continue working with Smith on the investigation.

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Smith recently underwent surgery for a knee injury in a bike accident. He did not attend the press conference.

The raft of criminal and civil state and federal investigations against Trump also includes a civil suit by the New York state attorney general against him and his three grown children for alleged fraud involving the family’s real estate business.

Smith is the third Justice Department special counsel appointed since 2017 to handle the politically sensitive case. Mueller apparently did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice, prompting then-Attorney General William Barr to make his own determination that such a charge was unfounded.

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

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

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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