The U.S. Justice Department on Friday appointed a former war crimes investigator as special counsel to oversee criminal investigations of Donald Trump, three days after the former president announced another run at the White House in 2024.
Trump – who claims to be the target of a “witch hunt” – condemned the dramatic move as “unfair” and “the worst politicization of justice in our country”.
The White House has strongly denied any political interference, but a special counsel’s unprecedented investigation into a former president — and current presidential candidate — sets the stage for a protracted legal battle.
At a press conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of Jack Smith, until recently chief prosecutor in The Hague charged with investigating war crimes in Kosovo, to take over the two ongoing federal investigations into Trump.
One focuses on the former president’s efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
The other is an investigation into a cache of classified government documents seized in August during an FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.
Garland said the appointment of special counsel was in the public interest, as both Republican Trump and his Democratic successor Joe Biden have stated their intention to participate in 2024 — though for now only Trump has stated officially.
“Assigning special counsel at this time is the right thing to do,” Garland said. “The extraordinary circumstances presented here demand it.”
At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden had no advance knowledge of Garland’s plans to appoint a special counsel.
– ‘So unfair’ –
Trump claimed in the interview with UKTN News Digital that he was being targeted by the Biden administration to prevent him from winning back the presidency.
“This is a disgrace and only happens because I’m leading in every poll from both parties,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. It’s so unfair. It’s so political.”
In a statement, Smith, who formerly headed the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, said “the pace of investigations under my oversight will not stop or slow down.”
“I will make an independent judgment and proceed with the investigations swiftly and thoroughly, regardless of the outcome dictated by the facts and the law,” he said.
Trump’s participation in the White House race on Tuesday makes indicting him a much more delicate matter.
The appointment of an independent prosecutor to oversee the duplicate investigations could help exonerate Garland, a Biden appointee, from allegations that the investigation is politically motivated.
The special counsel will determine whether to charge the former president, but the attorney general has the final say on whether to press charges.
Even if indicted, the 76-year-old Trump can still run for president — nothing in US law prohibits a person from being charged with or convicted of a crime.
While in office, Trump was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice and possible 2016 election collusion with Russia, but no charges were brought against him.
– Other legal woes –
In addition to the federal investigations, Trump faces other legal problems.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James has filed a civil suit against Trump and three of his children, accusing them of corporate fraud.
And Trump is under investigation for pressuring officials in the southern swing state of Georgia to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory — including a now-infamously taped phone call asking the secretary of state to “find” enough votes to undo the result.
Trump’s unusually early announcement that he was running for president in 2024 was viewed by some Washington analysts as an attempt to avert potential criminal charges.
Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives with a Democratic majority in 2019 for seeking political dirt on Biden from Ukraine, and again after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but was acquitted by the Senate both times.
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