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The White House has denied knowing in advance that U.S.Attorney General Merrick Garland had planned to name a special counsel 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.
Watch the briefing in the player above.
The appointment of veteran prosecutor Jack Smith, 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. It installs a new chain of command over sensitive probes seen as likely to accelerate now that the midterm elections have concluded, with Garland citing Trump’s entry into the race and President Joe Biden’s stated intention to run again as reasons for Smith’s appointment.
“The Department of Justice makes decisions about its criminal investigation independently,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We were not given advance notice. We were not aware of this of this investigation.”
The Justice Department described Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of perceived political bias. Trump is a Republican, and Biden is a Democrat.
A Trump spokesperson responded to the appointment by calling it “a totally expected political stunt by a feckless, politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice.”
WATCH: Attorney General Merrick Garland names special counsel to lead Trump-related probes
As special counsel, Smith will inherit two ongoing probes that both touch Trump. One concerns potential interference in the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election, when Trump allies scrambled for ways to overturn the results of the contest won by Biden, and the other is into the retention of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
The Mar-a-Lago probe has escalated especially quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Investigators in that case have interviewed a broad range of witnesses and, in court filings, have cited the presence of top-secret materials in Mar-a-Lago despite strict procedures governing the handling of classified information — as well as efforts to obstruct that probe.
The appointment of a special counsel is likely to raise questions with members of Congress eager for updates on the status of the investigations. And the decision to appoint someone from outside the department was notable given how Garland has repeatedly stressed his determination to restore political independence to the agency following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, House Republicans used their first news conference after clinching the majority to discuss Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the Justice Department, reiterating long-held grievances about what they claim is a politicized law enforcement agency and a bombshell corruption case overlooked by Democrats and the media.
Rep. James Comer, incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said there are “troubling questions” about Hunter Biden’s business dealings and one of the president’s brothers, James Biden, that require deeper investigation. It was of the utmost importance, he said.
Jean-Pierre described that as “on-brand” thinking.
“They said they were going to fight inflation, they said they were going to make that a priority, then they get the majority and their top priority is actually not focusing on the American family, but focusing on the president’s family.”
Hunter Biden’s taxes and foreign business work are already under federal investigation, with a grand jury in Delaware hearing testimony in recent months.
Joe Biden has said he’s never spoken to his son about his foreign business, and nothing the Republicans have put forth suggest otherwise. And there are no indications that the federal investigation involves the president in any way.
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