Jack Smith launches special counsel role in Trump Netherlands cases
Smith, a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, injured his leg in a recent cycling accident and is recovering from surgery. He was asked on Friday to assume control of Justice Department investigations into Trump’s role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, as well as the department’s investigation into possible mishandling of court secrets. national defense at Trump’s residence and private club at Mar-a-Lago, where more than 300 classified documents were recovered months after he left the White House.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said it was in the public interest to put a special counsel in charge of the cases, rather than Justice Department officials, to avoid a perceived conflict as Trump kicks off his 2024 presidential campaign and President Biden – who defeated Trump in 2020 – says he will run too.
Both Garland and Smith have sworn that the appointment of a special advocate will not slow down work in either case, and Smith has already gotten involved, albeit from the Netherlands. For example, a Monday court filing said Smith reviewed arguments in a months-long legal battle between the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers over documents seized during the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of Mar- a-Lago.
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A panel of federal appeals court judges in Atlanta is set to hear arguments on Tuesday on whether a federal judge was correct in appointing an outside legal expert known as a special master to review most of these documents.
Justice Department officials declined to answer questions on Monday about the mechanics of the start of the special counsel. They also wouldn’t say whether some senior officials who have been intimately involved in the Trump investigation will now step down from that job or temporarily leave their agency duties to work in the special counsel’s office.
Mary McCord, a former top national security official at the Justice Department, said in the case that she doesn’t expect political appointees to work in the office of special counsel, although career prosecutors can continue the business in this new structure.
The Department of Justice may have to make key personnel decisions to decide which career employees will move to work on the special advocates team. For example, Jay Bratt, who heads the Department of Justice’s counterintelligence section, has so far played an important role in the Mar-a-Lago investigation, but is likely working on other major investigations within of the department that are unrelated to Trump.
If Bratt is seconded to special counsel, he would not remain in his current role, McCord said.
That means the Justice Department must consider whether it makes more sense for Bratt to forgo his other responsibilities and work full-time with the special advocate. McCord said if Bratt remained in his current role, the special counsel could still seek his advice.
Beyond those types of decisions, she said, she wouldn’t expect the course of the Mar-a-Lago investigation to change much because of Smith’s appointment — mainly because the he criminal investigation is well underway, with prosecutors and federal agents obtaining key evidence. .
“The idea is that Smith will lead the day-to-day investigation,” McCord said, noting that federal regulations state that Garland can veto Smith’s charging decisions if he deems them “inappropriate and unwarranted.” .
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Most of Smith’s former Justice Department colleagues generally praised him as a dedicated prosecutor who never backed down from difficult cases, although an investigator who worked with him on public corruption cases did been less complimentary.
“I think he’s very talented, enthusiastic, fearless and really dedicated to the prosecutor’s mission,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former New York federal prosecutor who worked with Smith in the early 2000s. and jump into it.”
By contrast, Jeffrey Cortese, who served as acting head of the FBI’s public corruption unit in 2011 when Smith was his Justice Department counterpart overseeing the public integrity section, said he doesn’t consider Smith as a speedy or efficient agent in the pursuit of officials.
“At that time, it was understood that the fastest way for a case to die was to give it to PIN,” Cortese said, using the Public Integrity Section’s common moniker. “The frequency with which they have refused investigative techniques and prosecutions has often been a point of contention between the FBI and the Justice Department.”
It’s not uncommon for tensions to erupt between FBI agents and Justice Department officials in corruption investigations, and Smith took over the public integrity section at a difficult time for both agencies.
“When Jack was in charge, assuming a similar series of facts or a similar situation, I would be surprised if PIN even allowed the case to be opened,” Cortese said. “So I wonder why he would want to have anything to do with the case today.”
Dana Boente, a former senior Justice Department official, said when he heard on Friday that there would be a special advocate, he immediately started trying to think through who would be selected, given all the complexities. policies and practices of choice. It was not easy.
Boente said the person should have both public corruption and national security experience, not be perceived as partisan — and be willing to accept the assignment, which could mean giving up a lucrative job in the sector. private.
“I was going through names and didn’t really find anyone,” he said. “I had no one.”
Boente said Smith, whom he knows professionally, has not made his list of possible candidates. But when he learned later that day that Garland had nominated him, Boente said, he immediately concluded that Smith was a good choice that ticked all the necessary boxes.
The speed and length of investigations by special advocates have been the subject of intense debate in recent years. The 2017 appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special adviser spanned two years as he investigated possible links between Russian election interference and the Trump campaign, and whether as president Trump sought to do obstruction of justice. Mueller’s investigation led to a number of charges, including against people in Trump’s orbit, but no charges against Trump. Mueller also produced a lengthy report of his findings.
Garland inherited another special counsel investigation from his predecessor, which is ongoing but expected to wrap up in the coming months. Special Counsel John Durham, appointed two years ago during the Trump administration to continue investigating how intelligence agencies investigated alleged Russian election interference and the Trump campaign resulted in two acquittals at trial and a guilty plea by a former FBI attorney. Durham’s work should also produce a written report.
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While a special advocate has more freedom to handle cases and make decisions on their own, this person still works for the Department of Justice and ultimately reports to the Attorney General.
Brandon Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor who worked for Mueller’s special counsel, said he suspects Smith won’t need as much time as Mueller to get his operation up and running.
Unlike the Russia investigation when Mueller’s special counsel was announced, Van Grack said, the Mar-a-Lago and Jan. 6 investigations already appear to have significant resources and personnel dedicated to them. Mueller assembled a team that included a number of people who did not work at the Justice Department; Van Grack said he didn’t think Smith would need to hire as many outside people as Mueller’s special counsel.
“Some of the most notable people in the Mueller investigation were those who were able to make office space and logistics seem like seamless,” Van Grack said. “It was an incredibly cumbersome process, and it’s unclear if Special Counsel Smith will or will have to handle it.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.