DOJ names Jack Smith as special counsel to oversee Trump criminal investigations The department's former public integrity chief, most recently a war crimes prosecutor, will oversee the case of the security documents found at the former president's estate and key aspects of Jan. 6.

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DOJ names Jack Smith as special counsel to oversee Trump criminal investigations

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MERRICK GARLAND: I am confident that this appointment will not slow the completion of these investigations.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing an independent investigator will take charge of two criminal probes into conduct by former President Donald Trump. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the Justice Department announcement yesterday. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: What is the mandate for this special prosecutor?

JOHNSON: The prosecutor is going to oversee the ongoing investigation of classified materials the FBI found at Trump's Florida resort over the summer and possible obstruction of justice there. And he's going to oversee key aspects of the investigation into the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The official paperwork from the Justice Department mentions whether any person or entity broke the law by interfering with a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election and the certification of the Electoral College vote held in Congress that day. You know, there have already been 900 cases against people who rioted at the Capitol or beat up the police on January 6. Those cases will remain with the U.S. attorney, right here in Washington.

SIMON: Carrie, the Justice Department's been investigating January 6 for almost two years now; Mar-a-Lago documents case for months. What is a special prosecutor going to bring to ongoing investigations?

JOHNSON: Merrick Garland says there are extraordinary circumstances here that merit a special prosecutor, a need for independence and accountability. As for the timing of this decision, former President Trump announced he was running for office again this week. And the current president, Joe Biden, is inclined to run for reelection in 2024, and that may create a conflict of interest or at least the appearance of one.

SIMON: And what do we know about Jack Smith?

JOHNSON: He's registered as a political independent. He's been a prosecutor in Brooklyn and Nashville. And during the Obama administration, he ran the public integrity unit at the Justice Department when it was recovering from the botched prosecution against the late Senator Ted Stevens. But for the last several years, Smith has been a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague. He's moving back to the U.S. now, and he's going to start work as special counsel immediately. He wasn't at the Justice Department for the big announcement because he had a bicycle accident and had to have surgery on his knee. But in a written statement, Jack Smith promised to exercise independent judgment.

SIMON: But in the end, he reports to the attorney general. How independent can a special counsel really be?

JOHNSON: There's a whole set of regulations about this. They say the special counsel operates outside of the day-to-day oversight of the Justice Department. Jack Smith can decide whether and when to consult with the attorney general. But Merrick Garland can request briefings and overrule the special counsel if he wants to. If that happens, the Justice Department has to notify Congress - a kind of extra layer of oversight.

SIMON: This is now the second special counsel to investigate people close to Donald Trump. What's his reaction?

JOHNSON: The former president told Fox News this is a political move. He's been going through this for six years - first with the Mueller probe, now this. Trump says it's unfair, and he hopes Republicans have the courage to fight this, perhaps by conducting investigations of the Justice Department and the FBI through the Congress. Last night, Trump called this a witch hunt, just as he's done so many times before. Meanwhile, inside the Biden White House, a spokeswoman says they had no advance notice of the Justice Department move on a special counsel. And Biden has pledged not to interfere with the work of the Justice Department.

SIMON: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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