Special Counsel Smith speeds up criminal investigations surrounding Trump
Newly appointed special counsel Jack Smith is moving fast on a pair of criminal investigations around Donald Trump which in recent months have focused on the former president’s state of mind after the 2020 election, including what he knew about plans to prevent the transfer of power, people familiar with the matter tell CNN.
Although he remains in Europe to recover from a biking accident, Smith has taken a series of high-profile actions since his appointment last month, including asking a federal judge to despise Trump for failing to comply with a subpoena. to appear ordering him to return the files marked classified.
Since Thanksgiving, Smith has brought a number of Trump’s close associates before a grand jury in Washington, including two former White House lawyers, three of Trump’s closest aides and his former speechwriter Stephen Miller. He also issued a series of subpoenas, including to election officials in battleground states where Trump tried to reverse his 2020 defeat.
Smith supports a team that is already nearly twice the size of Robert Mueller’s team of lawyers who worked on the Russia investigation. A team of 20 prosecutors investigating Jan. 6 and efforts to nullify the 2020 election are moving to work under Smith, according to several people familiar with the team.
Smith will also hire national security investigators who are already investigating potential mishandling of federal records brought to Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s departure from the White House.
Together, the twin investigations have already established more evidence than Mueller started with, including from a year-long financial investigation that has largely gone under the radar.
“Mueller was virtually starting from scratch, as Jack Smith seemingly fits on the fly into an active and fast-paced investigation,” said Elie Honig, former federal prosecutor and CNN senior legal analyst.
Nor will Smith be coerced in the same way as Mueller, who postponed the decision to indict Trump because he was sitting president.
While Trump lambasted Smith’s nomination on social media, some of the former president’s attorneys believe it could have been worse, according to people familiar with the matter. These lawyers argue that the former president is unlikely to be charged, according to two familiar sources. They also believe Smith’s appointment is a good thing because he is “not emotionally attached” to the original case and can look at it “dispassionately and factually”, one of the sources said.
“The fact that they found a guy who has been in Europe for several years, without his brain marinating in the January 6 soup, that’s a good thing,” the source said.
But other members of Trump’s team fear Smith’s appointment signals a more aggressive stance by Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling him a “hit man” likely to press charges, people familiar with the matter said. their thought.
The Justice Department’s approach to the Mar-a-Lago case hit a minor bump on Friday, with a federal judge declining to hold Trump in contempt and urging the DOJ and Trump’s team to find a solution as investigators try to ensure that all national security records are back in federal possession.
Behind the scenes, in a separate sealed proceeding related to Jan. 6, Smith has already told federal court he’s in charge of the investigation, sources say. And while Trump’s attorneys on the Jan. 6 investigation haven’t been in direct contact with Smith at this point, some of the sources say they anticipate they will eventually speak to him once he returns to the United States. .
It’s unclear how long Smith can continue working before deciding on any charges in either probe. Although both investigations could result in charges within months, Smith could still spend time organizing and expanding his team and continuing to sift through the information gathered, according to people familiar with parts of the investigation.
“It may well be that Jack Smith moves faster than Merrick Garland would and forces a decision on Merrick Garland’s office faster than he otherwise would have,” Honig said.
According to a handful of people familiar with the investigation, there is still work to be done to centralize all the moving parts of the major prosecution teams under the new office of special counsel.
Smith should set up a physical office for the two investigative teams away from Justice’s downtown headquarters, as Mueller did for his investigation and as did John Durham, who is nearing the end of his term. review of the 2016 Trump-Russia investigation.
According to several people familiar with his appointment, Smith will function more like a U.S. attorney — managing an existing team of career prosecutors already working on cases and approving the evidence they bring to him — rather than a de facto department head. like Mueller, who brought in several lawyers outside the Justice Department to pursue parts of the Russia investigation from scratch.
Mueller also had his own set of legal advisers, similar to a shadow Justice Department appeals and policy team. Smith likely won’t have the same setup — with attorneys from across the department assisting as needed, according to several people familiar with the office’s development.
Garland has already turned to longtime Criminal Appeals Section chief Patty Stemler, who retired earlier this year from the DOJ, to advise as a consultant on the Jan. 6 investigations throughout This year.
Other members of Stemler’s old unit and other sections are likely to handle business and political issues as needed, deviating from Mueller’s nut-soup approach of preparing for constitutional questions. thorny issues and appeals in the Russia investigation, some sources said.
A Justice Department spokesperson had no comment on the story.
Released court documents have already made it clear that Trump is being investigated for mishandling national security secrets after his presidency.
But the other investigative team, examining efforts to block Trump’s transfer of power to President Joe Biden after the 2020 election, even received the Justice Department’s green light a year ago to bring a case. all the way to Trump, if the evidence leads them there, the sources say. The work that has been led by the DC US Attorney’s Office in political circles around Trump related to Jan. 6 will now come under the special counsel.
Led in part by former Maryland-based federal prosecutor Thomas Windom, the DOJ has added prosecutors to the Jan. 6 team from across the department in recent months. Windom and the others should also move to the special advocate’s office. Some, like Mary Dohrmann, a prosecutor who has previously worked on several other Capitol riot cases, appear to be refocusing, according to court records of open Capitol riot cases.
Another top prosecutor, JP Cooney, the former head of public corruption at the US Attorney’s Office in DC, is overseeing a major financial investigation that Smith will take over. The investigation includes examining the possible misuse of political contributions, according to some of the sources. The DC U.S. Attorney’s Office, prior to the arrival of the special counsel, had been reviewing potential financial crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot, including possible money laundering and support for hotel stays and rioter bus trips to Washington before Jan. 6.
Over the past several months, however, the financial investigation has sought information about Trump’s Save America post-election PAC and other funding from people who helped Trump, according to subpoenas viewed by CNN. The financial investigation gained momentum as DOJ investigators enlisted aides months after the 2021 riot, one of the sources said.
In interviews with people in Trump’s orbit over the past several months, some of the DOJ’s attention has been on the timeline leading up to January 6 and Trump’s involvement and knowledge of potential events this day, according to a source familiar with the questioning.
Trump allies have always maintained that nothing Trump did in relation to the election and Jan. 6 itself constituted a crime. They also suggested that if Trump ultimately faces indictment, the bar for proving he committed a crime is extremely high and a jury would hear that he was receiving conflicting advice from different lawyers. For example, Trump allies point out, White House lawyer Pat Cipollone told Trump that Vice President Mike Pence could not block certification of the January 6 election, while Rudy Giuliani and others thought he could.
Even earlier this year, federal prosecutors were specifically asking witnesses if there was a plan to steal the election and for Trump not to concede, according to a source with knowledge of the questions being asked at this stage of the DOJ’s criminal investigation. .
The DOJ investigation has evolved significantly since then, but sources familiar with grand jury testimony in recent months told CNN prosecutors are still focused on the central question of whether there was a plan to rob. the election and Trump’s understanding of relevance. of January 6.