Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday appointed a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigations into the retention of national defense information at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and parts of the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
Both investigations implicate the conduct of Trump, who on Tuesday declared his candidacy in the 2024 presidential race, making him a potential rival of President Joe Biden.
"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 have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel," Garland said at the Justice Department on Friday.
Jack Smith, the former chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague, where he investigated war crimes in Kosovo, will oversee the investigations.
Smith "has built the reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor," Garland said.
Trump has sought to paint the investigations as politically motivated, including at his Tuesday presidential announcement, where he said he was the victim of a "weaponization" of the justice system.
Speaking at the America First gala at Mar-a-Lago on Friday night, the former president called the special counsel appointment an "appalling announcement" and a "horrendous abuse of power."
The Mar-a-Lago probe burst into public view when the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump's Florida resort in August. Trump went to court to secure an order requiring that a third attorney review the materials seized in the search. Documents marked as classified were excluded from that review by an appellate court, allowing for their use in the criminal probe. Investigators have also brought witnesses before a federal grand jury that has been empaneled in DC in the probe.
The prosecutions of those who physically breached the US Capitol have been the most public aspect of the Justice Department's January 6 probe, and those will remain under the purview of the US Attorney's office in Washington, DC. But behind the scenes, prosecutors have subpoenaed scores of witnesses close to the former president for documents and testimony in the probe.
"I intend to conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them, independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice," Smith said in a statement Friday. "The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch. I will exercise independent judgment and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate."
Investigations heating up
According to multiple sources, both the Mar-a-Lago investigation and the January 6 investigation around Trump are aiming to gather more information and bring witnesses into a federal grand jury in the coming weeks. Prosecutors sent out several new subpoenas related to both investigations in recent days, with quick return dates as early as next week.
Some of the witnesses being pursued in this round had not spoken to the investigators in these cases before, according to some of the sources.
Many in Trump's orbit had believed and hoped that the investigation had slowed or even halted, as they hadn't heard from the Justice Department for weeks after meeting their subpoena document deadlines, multiple sources said.
Some of the subpoenas issued in the probe have indicated a wide-ranging investigation that touches on nearly all aspects of the efforts to overturn Biden's electoral victory. They signaled that investigators are interested in the plot to put forward fraudulent electors in states Biden won, the work Trump allies did to push baseless election fraud claims and how money flowed to support those various efforts.
Trump's team had been discussing in recent days the likelihood that the Justice Department would appoint a special counsel, multiple sources familiar with the talks told CNN.
Trump's lawyers had been dreading the prospect, concerned it could drag out the investigation they have fought continuously in court. And Trump himself has complained about the matter, likening the prospect to former special counsel Robert Mueller, who oversaw the Russia investigation.
The former president on Friday indicated that he had believed federal investigations into him were slowing down or over until the announcement from Garland. He repeatedly called the investigations political and said it was not a fair situation and would not be a fair investigation, telling the crowd at Mar-a-Lago, "You'd really say enough is enough."
Justice Department officials had been debating for weeks whether to appoint a special counsel, CNN previously reported.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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