‘Extraordinary circumstances’: AG Garland names special counsel to lead Trump-related probes
By ERIC TUCKER and MICHAEL BALSAMO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel on Friday to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
The move, being announced just three days after Trump formally launched his 2024 candidacy, is a recognition of the unmistakable political implications of two investigations that involve not only a former president but also a current White House hopeful.
Garland said Friday that Trump’s announcement of his presidential candidacy and President Joe Biden’s likely 2024 run were factors in his decision to appoint a special counsel. Garland said the appointment would allow prosecutors to continue their work “indisputably guided” only by the facts and the law.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File
FILE - Former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time as he pauses while speaking at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Nov. 15, 2022.
Though the appointment installs a new supervisor atop the probes — both of which are expected to accelerate now that the midterm elections are over — the special counsel will still report to Garland, who has ultimate say of whether to bring charges.
The role will be filled by Jack Smith, a veteran prosecutor who led the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington and who later served as the acting chief federal prosecutor in Nashville, Tennessee, during the Obama administration. More recently, he has been the chief prosecutor for the special court in the Hague that is tasked with investigating international war crimes.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File
FILE - Jack Smith, then the Department of Justice's chief of the Public Integrity Section, poses for photo at the Department of Justice in Washington, on Aug. 24, 2010.
The Justice Department described Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of perceived political bias.
“The extraordinary circumstances here demand it,” Garland said of the appointment.
The special counsel’s probe will combine the investigation into “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election” and the investigation into the classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Representatives for Trump, a Republican, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
There was no immediate reason provided for the decision or for its timing. Garland has spoken repeatedly of his singular focus on the facts, the evidence and the law in the Justice Department’s decision-making and of his determination to restore political independence to the agency following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.
And there does not seem to be an obvious conflict like the one that prompted the last appointment of a special counsel to handle Trump-related investigations. The Trump Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.
Then-President Donald Trump left the White House for Florida ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. According to the General Services Administration, members of Trump's transition team were responsible for packing items into boxes, putting boxes on pallets and shrink-wrapping those pallets so they could be transported.
Prior to shipping, GSA said it "required the outgoing transition team to certify in writing that the items being shipped were required to wind down the Office of the Former President and would be utilized as the Office transitioned to its new location in Florida."
GSA did not examine the contents of the boxes and "had no knowledge of the contents prior to shipping," according to an agency spokesperson. GSA was also not responsible for the former president's personal belongings, which were transported by a private moving company.
Under the Presidential Records Act, presidential records are considered federal property — not private — and are supposed to be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration. Multiple federal laws govern the handling of classified and sensitive government documents, including statutes that make it a crime to remove such material and retain it at an unauthorized location.
After NARA realized that documents from Trump's presidency seemed to be missing from the material that it received as he left office, the agency requested the records from Trump on or about May 6, 2021, according to a heavily redacted affidavit made public Aug. 26, 2022.
The special agent in charge of NARA's Office of the Inspector General sent a referral to the Justice Department via email after a preliminary review of the boxes revealed numerous classified documents.
"Of most significant concern," they wrote, according to a heavily-redacted affidavit released last week, "was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly (sic) identified."
After an initial review of the NARA referral, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the matter.
Trump's Save America PAC released a statement insisting the return of the documents had been as "routine" and "no big deal."
Trump insisted the "papers were given easily and without conflict and on a very friendly basis," and added, "It was a great honor to work with NARA to help formally preserve the Trump Legacy."
The Justice Department sent a letter to Trump's lawyers seeking immediate access to the material, citing "important national security interest."
"Access to the materials is not only necessary for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation, but the Executive Branch must also conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps," the department wrote.
Trump's lawyers requested an additional extension.
Three FBI agents and a DOJ attorney went to Mar-a-Lago to collect additional material offered by a Trump attorney in response to the subpoena. They were given "a single Redweld envelope, double-wrapped in tape, containing the documents," according to an Aug. 30 filing.
That envelope, it was later found, contained 38 documents with classification markings, including five documents marked confidential, 16 marked secret and 17 marked top secret.
During the visit, the filing said, "Counsel for the former President offered no explanation as to why boxes of government records, including 38 documents with classification markings, remained at the Premises nearly five months after the production of the Fifteen Boxes and nearly one-and-a-half years after the end of the Administration."
Trump's lawyers also told investigators that all of the records that had come from the White House were stored in one location — a Mar-a-Lago storage room. Investigators were permitted to visit the room, but were "explicitly prohibited" from opening or looking inside any of the boxes, they reported, "giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained."
The Justice Department was also given a signed certification letter stating that a "diligent search" had been completed and that no documents remained.
The Justice Department filed an application for a search and seizure warrant of Mar-a-Lago, citing "probable cause" that additional presidential records and records containing classified information remained in various parts of the club.
"There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction" would be found, read the heavily-redacted copy of the affidavit laying out the FBI's rationale for the search.
The Justice Department also revealed in the Aug. 30 filing that it had found evidence "that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart in South Florida approved the application that same day.
The FBI executed the search at Mar-a-Lago, seizing 36 items of evidence, including boxes and containers holding more than 100 classified records, an order pardoning Trump ally Roger Stone and information about the "President of France."
Agents found classified documents both in the storage room as well as in the former president's office — including three classified documents found not in boxes, but in office desks.
They included items so sensitive that, "In some instances, even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents."
"That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the 'diligent search' that the former President's counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter," the Justice Department wrote.
Trump and his allies, meanwhile, cast the search as a weaponization of the criminal justice system aimed at damaging him politically as he prepares for another potential White House run.
Judge Reinhart unsealed the warrant that authorized the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago, which details that federal agents were investigating potential violations of three federal laws, including the Espionage Act.
A highly redacted version of the affidavit laying out the FBI's rationale for searching Mar-a-Lago was released.
Department of Justice via AP
The Justice Department responded to Trump's request for a special master in a filing that included new details about the investigation, including an assertion that classified documents were "likely concealed and removed" from a storage room at Mar-a-Lago as part of an effort to obstruct the probe.
It included a photograph of some the material found at the club, including cover pages of paperclip-bound documents — some marked as "TOP SECRET//SCI" with bright yellow borders and one marked as "SECRET//SCI" with a rust-colored border — splayed out on a carpet at Mar-a-Lago.
"Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see," Trump responded. "Thought they wanted them kept Secret?"
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File
FILE - Former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland walks into Federal District Court, Nov. 2, 2017, in Washington.
AP Photo/Steve Helber, File
FILE - An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 31, 2022.