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 at the Justice Department on Friday.
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.
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 Capitol have been the most public aspect of the Justice Department’s January 6 probe. But behind the scenes, prosecutors have subpoenaed scores of witnesses close to the former president for documents and testimony in the probe.
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.
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 form special counsel Robert Mueller, who overlooks the Russia investigation.
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.