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Garland names special counsel to lead Trump-related probes

Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo --- The Associated Press   ---- Staff, Updated Published -- Source --- https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/g...ted-probes-1.6159370

https://www.ctvnews.ca/content/dam/ctvnews/en/images/2022/11/18/u-s--attorney-general-merrick-garland-1-6159522-1668802418316.jpg

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland arrives to announce a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department's investigation into the presence of classified documents at former President Donald Trump's Florida estate and aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election, at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. Listening are Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Kenneth Polite, left, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON -

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel on Friday to oversee the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into the presence of classified documents at former U.S. President Donald Trump's Florida estate as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.

The appointment of veteran prosecutor Jack Smith, announced just three days after Trump formally launched his 2024 candidacy, is a recognition of the unmistakable political implications of two investigations that involve not only a former president but also a current White House hopeful. It installs a new chain of command over sensitive probes seen as likely to accelerate now that the midterm elections have concluded, with Garland citing Trump's entry into the race and President Joe Biden's stated intention to run again as reasons for Smith's sudden appointment.

"The Department of Justice has long recognized that in certain extraordinary cases, it is in the public's interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution," Garland said from the Justice Department's podium.

Trump addressed the news Friday night at an America First Policy Institute gala at Mar-a-Lago, slamming what he described as the "appalling announcement today by the egregiously corrupt Biden administration and their weaponized Department of Justice."

He called it a "horrendous abuse of power" and "the latest in a long series of witch hunts," and insisted he'd "done nothing wrong,"

Smith, who led the Justice Department's public integrity section in Washington and later served as the acting chief federal prosecutor in Nashville, Tennessee, during the Obama administration, is set to begin his work immediately, Garland said. He has been serving since 2018 as chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague, Netherlands, that is tasked with investigating international war crimes.

The Justice Department described Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of perceived political bias. Trump is a Republican, and Biden is a Democrat.

"Throughout his career, Jack Smith has built a reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor who leads teams with energy and focus to follow the facts wherever they lead," Garland said. "As special counsel, he will exercise independent prosecutorial judgment to decide whether charges should be brought."

"The extraordinary circumstances here demand it," Garland said of the appointment.

In a statement released by the Justice Department, Smith said he intended to do his work independently and "in the best traditions of the Department of Justice."

"The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch," he vowed.

As special counsel, Smith will inherit two ongoing probes that both touch Trump. One concerns potential interference in the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election, when Trump allies scrambled for ways to overturn the results of the contest won by Biden. The other involves the retention of classified documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Mar-a-Lago probe has escalated especially quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Investigators in that case have interviewed a broad range of witnesses and, in court filings, have cited legal concerns over the presence of top-secret materials in Mar-a-Lago despite strict procedures that govern the handling of classified information. They've also alleged efforts to obstruct that probe.

In his role as special counsel, Smith will be empowered to decide whether charges should be brought as part of his investigations and to prosecute any crimes he uncovers. Though Garland as attorney general would retain ultimate oversight of his work, he stressed the independent decision-making that Smith will bring to bear on the job.

The selection of someone from outside the department for the special counsel role was notable given how much emphasis Garland has placed in trying to ensure public confidence in his own workforce of prosecutors following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration, and to reassure Americans that his prosecutors' decisions are based on facts, the evidence and the law and can therefore be trusted.

There also does not seem to be an obvious conflict like the one that prompted the last appointment of a special counsel to handle Trump-related investigations.

The Trump Justice Department in 2017 named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, a recognition of the inherent conflict involved in investigating a president who controls the executive branch.

Mueller declined to make a decision on whether Trump had criminally obstructed justice, noting longstanding Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. As a former president, Trump will no longer have that protection.

The special counsel role is the latest in a series of prosecutorial jobs for Smith, who early in his career was an assistant district attorney in New York before later joining the Justice Department.

Lanny Breuer, who led the department's criminal division when Smith ran the public integrity section, called Smith "an exquisite lawyer and an exquisite prosecutor."

"He's not political at all," Breuer said. "He's straight down the middle."

Smith grew up in upstate New York and graduated from Harvard Law School. He told The Associated Press in 2010 that he saw the role of a prosecutor as serving people like his parents and others he grew up with in the town of Clay.

"They pay their taxes, follow the rules, and they expect their public officials to do the same," he said then.

He had returned to the Justice Department at the time to oversee the department's then-troubled public integrity section, which was battered publicly for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence in the criminal trial of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican. Supporters lauded him as apolitical and hardworking.

During his tenure, his unit brought a series of high-profile cases against elected officials from both political parties. Not all were successful, and not all investigations resulted in criminal charges -- a powerful lesson, Smith told the AP.

When there isn't sufficient evidence to bring a case, "you have to be able to admit that if it's not there, it's not there," Smith said. "I think that's hard for people to do, and having been a prosecutor for 15 years that is something I can do."

------

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Zeke Miller and Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.

EXPLAINER: What are special counsels and what do they do?

timer5 min. read --- Source --- https://www.thestar.com/news/w...what-do-they-do.html

WASHINGTON (AP) β€” The appointment of a special counsel to oversee the remainder of two significant investigations related to former President Donald Trump focuses fresh attention on the role such prosecutors have played in modern American history.

In this case, Attorney General Merrick Garland has turned to Jack Smith, a veteran war crimes prosecutor with a background in public corruption probes to lead investigations into the retention of classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.

A look at the origins of the special counsel, the position’s powers and what to expect as Smith pursues his work:

___

WHAT EXACTLY IS A SPECIAL COUNSEL?

A special counsel is an attorney appointed to investigate, and possibly prosecute, a case in which the Justice Department perceives itself as having a conflict or where it’s deemed to be in the public interest to have someone outside the government come in and take responsibility for a matter.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, a special counsel must have β€œa reputation for integrity and impartial decisionmaking,β€œ as well as β€œan informed understanding of the criminal law and Department of Justice policies.”

Though they’re not subject to the day-to-day supervision of the Justice Department, special counsels must still comply with department regulations, policies and procedures. They also technically report to the attorney general β€” the one government official who can fire them.

The attorney general is entitled to seek explanations from a special counsel about any requested investigative or prosecutorial step, but under the regulations, is also expected to give great weight to the special counsel’s views. In the event the attorney general rejects a move the special counsel wants to make, the Justice Department is to notify Congress at the end of the investigation.

WHAT POWERS DO THEY HAVE?

Special counsels are provided with a budget and can request a staff of attorneys, both inside the outside the department, if they need extra help. Smith is expected to inherit the months of work that’s already been done by career prosecutors rather than start from scratch.

In addition to the ability to bring indictments, special counsels are vested with bread-and-butter law enforcement tools such as the power to issue subpoenas and search warrants. Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who as special counsel in the Trump administration led the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, issued more than 2,800 subpoenas and executed nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants.

HOW DO INDEPENDENT COUNSELS DIFFER FROM SPECIAL COUNSELS?

Smith’s position as special counsel differs in key ways from the work of independent counsels who used to operate outside the supervision of the Justice Department and who led significant investigations in the post-Watergate era into administrations of both political parties.

One such independent counsel was Lawrence E. Walsh, who during the β€œIran Contra Affair” in President Ronald Reagan’s second term was appointed to probe secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of funds to rebel forces fighting the Nicaraguan government.

A decade later, independent counsel Ken Starr investigated fraudulent real estate deals involving a long-time associate of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, delved into the removal of documents from the office of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster after his suicide and assembled evidence of Clinton’s sexual encounters with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As a result, Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House but survived a Senate trial.

But amid concerns over the cost and sprawling nature of such probes, Congress in 1999 permitted the provision governing independent counsels to expire.

The Justice Department then created new special counsel regulations, designing a position with intentionally less autonomy for circumstances in which the department feels it has a conflict of interest or wants to avoid becoming excessively entangled in politically sticky matters β€” like the current Trump-related probes.

Smith isn’t even the first special counsel to deal with Trump-related matters.

Mueller was appointed in 2017 to investigate Russian election interference, a two-year probe that yielded criminal charges against 34 people, including several Trump associates, and three business entities. Mueller did not allege a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Though Mueller reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, he also did not exonerate him.

Weeks before then-Attorney General William Barr left office, he gave John Durham, then the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut, the title of special counsel to ensure that he could continue investigating the origins of the Russia probe under new, Democratic Justice Department leadership.

WHO IS SPECIAL COUNSEL JACK SMITH?

He’s a veteran prosecutor who for five years oversaw the Justice Department’s public integrity section, which investigates wrongdoing by politicians and election crimes. He arrived in 2010, tasked with restoring a vaunted unit which had rocked by a scandal over the failure to produce exculpatory evidence in a prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

During his tenure in that job, the unit brought tough cases against prominent public figures of both political parties, including Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell (the Supreme Court ultimately threw out his public corruption conviction) and former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. A jury in that campaign finance case acquitted him on one count and deadlocked on all others.

He later led the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville before becoming vice president of litigation for a non-governmental healthcare provider. More recently, he’s been a prosecutor for the special court in The Hague that investigates war crimes in Kosovo.

The Justice Department on Friday described Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of perceived political bias. Trump is a Republican, and Biden is a Democrat.

Outside of work, the hard-charging Smith is a competitive athlete who says he’s participated in triathlons around the world.

___

Kinnard reported from Columbia, S.C.

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