The full impact of former President Trump’s decision to again seek the presidency became clear for the first time on Friday — but not in the way Trump wanted.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of a special counsel to helm two big investigations surrounding Trump — one pertaining to attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the other into the handling of sensitive documents that ended up at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Garland has appointed career prosecutor Jack Smith to the role. The attorney general insisted the decision “will not slow the completion of these investigations.”
More importantly from a political standpoint, Garland made clear that Trump’s entry into the 2024 presidential race was the key catalyst for his decision.
“It is in the public interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage an investigation and prosecution based on some developments,” Garland said during an afternoon news conference, at which he took no questions.
Those developments, he added, included, “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.”
Garland, whose 2016 nomination to the Supreme Court was halted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is realistic enough to know there is no possibility of his decision quietening the claims from Trump loyalists that the investigations are partisan witch hunts.
But he is at least hoping to preserve respect for the Department of Justice with the broader public at a time when it is under fire from a new Republican majority soon to take control of the House of Representatives.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have said they will use their new power in January to launch probes into a number of areas, including what they contend is the politicization of the Justice Department.
Democrats roll their eyes at the charge given Trump’s actions while in office, including firing James Comey as FBI director and pressuring then-Attorney General William Barr to find nonexistent evidence of widespread election fraud in 2020.
Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, said he believed Garland had made a “nuanced legal call” on the special counsel.
“I do think there is a classic conflict of interest once Trump became a candidate, because prosecuting him can aid the president — and indirectly aid Garland,” Litman said.
While Litman noted that there was no chance of the move winning over ardent supporters of the former president, he added, “Hopefully it convinces whoever is left in the middle that [the DOJ] have done whatever they can to make it without fear or favor.”
The White House is adamant in asserting its non-involvement in the attorney general’s decision.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Friday’s media briefing that Biden “was not aware” that Garland was going to appoint a special counsel.
“We were not given advance notice,” she added.
Trump, naturally, has come out with all guns blazing.
In an interview with Fox Digital, the former president branded the appointment “a disgrace” and said that it was “only happening because I am leading in every poll in both parties.”
His first assertion is a matter of opinion, but his second is untrue.
Trump has fallen behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some polls of a hypothetical 2024 GOP primary battle.
DeSantis had perhaps the best midterm election of any. Republican, storming to a resounding reelection victory over Democratic opponent Charlie Crist. Trump, meanwhile, saw some of his most high-profile endorsees lose, renewing questions about whether he is an electoral liability to the GOP.
The timing of Trump’s 2024 campaign launch, beneath that political cloud, was widely interpreted as being an attempt to get out in front of the legal perils he faces.
A declaration of candidacy makes it easier to do what Trump is now doing — casting any moves by prosecutors as a sinister effort to hobble his candidacy.
Many of his allies push a similar line.
“If this is anything like the [Robert] Mueller investigation, the American people are in for a two-act comedy,” long-time Trump associate Michael Caputo told this column.
“Every time someone says the noose is getting tighter around Donald Trump, we find out there is nothing to it at all. This will not be the first time that an investigation came up empty-handed,” Caputo predicted.
Trump also promised in a Truth Social post that he would make a further statement on “the never ending Witch Hunt” at Mar-a-Lago later on Friday evening.
Still, beyond the president’s bluster, his troubles appear to be deepening. Smith, a prosecutor since 1994, has a stellar resume that includes spearheading the pursuit of possible war criminals at the special court in The Hague.
He is unlikely to be unnerved by Trump.
And that could be bad news, legally and politically, for the former president.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Brett Samuels contributed.