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Attorney general appoints special counsel for Trump probes

The decision to hand off the Justice Department's investigations of the former president comes just days after he announced another campaign for the White House.

(CN) — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday named a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigations into former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Garland appointed Jack Smith, a former federal prosecutor who has also investigated war crimes abroad, to handle the investigations.

The attorney general said Smith will begin his work as special counsel immediately and will be returning to the U.S. from The Hague, Netherlands, where he was the chief prosecutor for a special international criminal court.

Smith is “a veteran career prosecutor," according to Garland, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York for nine years, prosecuting matters “ranging from gang murders of police officers to civil rights violations.”

In 2020, Smith returned to the Justice Department to serve as chief of the Public Integrity Section, where Garland said he “led a team of more than 30 prosecutors who handled public corruption and election crime cases across the United States.”

Garland called the investigations involving Trump an “urgent matter” and said that they will be done more expeditiously with Smith now overseeing them.  

The decision to appoint a special counsel to take over the Justice Department's investigations of Trump comes just days after he announced that he is running for president again in 2024.

During his announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday, Trump called himself a “victim” of the Justice Department and tried to frame its investigations as politically motivated. His bid for the presidency doesn’t shield him from any potential indictments. 

“In certain extraordinary cases, it is in the public interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution,” Garland said Friday. “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’s stated intention to be a candidate as well, I’ve concluded it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.”

As special counsel, Smith will be able to “exercise independent prosecutorial judgment to decide whether charges should be brought,” Garland said.  

In the Mar-a-Lago probe, which burst into public view after FBI agents seized around 11,000 documents from the property in August, a district court appointed a special master to review the documents to assess Trump’s claims of privilege and for the return of personal property.

Last month, the 11th Circuit refused to give the special master access to the classified documents that were retrieved, allowing them to be used in the criminal probe. Multiple witnesses have already been called before a federal grand jury in Washington.

If any prosecution is brought regarding Trump’s or his campaign’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, it is likely to happen soon as the House Jan. 6 committee and a Georgia district attorney are moving towards conclusions of their separate investigations into the matter.

Several witnesses close to Trump and his campaign have already testified this year in both investigations. The House Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed the former president himself, but so far he has managed to dodge testimony through court challenges.

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