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Attorney General Garland appoints special counsel to oversee Trump investigations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States attorney general has named a special counsel to oversee sensitive investigations that touch on former President Trump. Merrick Garland made that announcement in Washington today. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was there. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Federal prosecutors have been looking into January 6 and the classified materials found at Mar-a-Lago for months now, many months, right? So why this? Why now?

JOHNSON: The attorney general says there are extraordinary circumstances. He says former President Trump is running for the White House again in 2024, and the current president, Joe Biden, is leaning in that direction, too. Garland says naming a special counsel underscores his commitment to independence and to accountability, and he says he's going to make sure the special counsel has the resources he needs to do that job.

KELLY: So who is it?

JOHNSON: His name is Jack Smith. He's a veteran prosecutor. He once led the public integrity unit at the Justice Department after a big scandal following the botched prosecution of the late Senator Ted Stevens. I interviewed Jack Smith years ago for NPR. Here's what he told me back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JACK SMITH: We try to keep busy, and it's only going to stay this way. Our mandate is to investigate corruption throughout the United States. And that's not just corruption here in Washington, but it's corruption in both federal and state bodies throughout the country.

JOHNSON: And since that time, Jack Smith went on to work as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague. As of today, he's quit that job, and he's going to be moving back here to the U.S.

KELLY: One thing I was wondering, Carrie - the investigation into January 6. That has already produced more than 900 prosecutions. What happens to them? Do those cases just keep chugging along?

JOHNSON: They do. The attorney general says all those cases are going to proceed under the oversight of the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., as they have been, and Merrick Garland says the U.S. attorney will lead any more new cases of people charged with breaking the law on Capitol grounds on January 6. But as for the rest, the special counsel is going to be in charge of other key aspects of that January 6 probe. Justice wasn't too specific about this, but the paperwork says Jack Smith will look into people who interfered with the lawful transfer of power or the certification of the Electoral College vote. And, of course, we know grand juries have heard from key people in the Trump White House - lawyers, aides to former Vice President Mike Pence, among others. And there have been a flurry of subpoenas to people involved in an alleged scheme to submit lists of fake electors during that time frame, too.

KELLY: My other big question is timing, what this might mean in terms of timing of the January 6 investigation, the Mar-a-Lago investigation. Might this slow things down, speed them up? What?

JOHNSON: The new special counsel said in a statement today the pace of these investigations will not pause or flag on his watch, and the attorney general says he's confident the probes won't bog down given Jack Smith's experience and how much work has been done already. Here's more from Merrick Garland today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: I strongly believe that the normal processes of this department can handle all investigations with integrity, and I also believe that appointing a special counsel at this time is the right thing to do. The extraordinary circumstances presented here demand it. Mr. Smith is the right choice to complete these matters in an even-handed and urgent manner.

KELLY: Carrie, step back with me. This is the third special counsel we will have seen in recent years. What makes them different?

JOHNSON: Yeah. We've talked so much about the Robert Mueller probe of Russian election interference in 2016, and then special counsel John Durham now seems to be finishing up his work...

KELLY: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...After losing both cases he brought to trial. Now we're going to see what Jack Smith does. The regulations say if the attorney general decides to overrule Jack Smith on important decisions, Merrick Garland would need to notify Congress. So that's a layer of oversight that doesn't normally exist in Justice Department operations. And for the record, Mary Louise, the Biden White House says it had no advance notice of this announcement today. As for former President Donald Trump, he told Fox News this move is, quote, "political." He's not going to participate or partake in it, and he says he hopes Republicans have the courage to fight this.

KELLY: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.