News & Politics

3 Things to Know About Jack Smith, the Special Counsel Overseeing the Criminal Investigations Into Trump

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Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that longtime Justice Department prosecutor Jack Smith will serve as special counsel overseeing the criminal investigations into former President Donald Trump. Here are three things to know about Smith:

1. He’s familiar with public corruption cases—and prosecuting politicians. Smith served as the head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in DC from 2010 to 2015, which secured convictions of former Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell, who Mitt Romney considered for his 2012 vice presidential ticket, was convicted in 2014 on 11 counts of public corruption, including illegally accepting cash, luxury goods, and vacations from a Virginia businessman looking to use the governor’s office to peddle his nutritional supplement manufacturer—a scandal that stemmed from McDonnell’s falling out with his former chef, Todd Schneider.

Renzi, who represented a district in northeastern Arizona from 2003 to 2009, was convicted in 2013 on 17 counts, including extortion, in connection with a federal land-exchange proposal involving a planned mine—a project Renzi threatened to halt if mining executives didn’t purchase land from a former business partner that owed him money. 

In 2016, the Supreme Court vacated McDonnell’s conviction, even though Chief Justice John Roberts described the former governor’s actions as “tawdry.” Renzi, who served a three-year prison sentence, was pardoned by President Trump during his final hours in office.

2. He takes an “aggressive” approach—particularly when he thinks he can win. A former prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section told the New York Times in 2014 that Smith’s style was “aggressive,” and that “he definitely tried to get us trials.”

But Smith was selective. When he was hired in 2010, the Times reported, the section was in disarray, having blown a corruption case against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens and becoming the focus of two misconduct investigations itself. 

According to the Times, Smith reviewed the section’s backlogged cases, including investigations of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, and closed many without charges, explaining that “it’s human nature to become attached. The really good prosecutors don’t.”

Prosecution, Smith told the Times, is about momentum—choosing cases that have a clear path forward. Barbara Van Gelder, a defense lawyer, told the Times that under Smith, the section’s guiding philosophy could be described as, “’If you shoot the king, you shoot to kill.'”

3. He’s unlikely to be fazed by all things Trump. In his new role overseeing investigations relating to classified materials at Mar-a-Lago and the events of January 6, Smith will likely become a Big Bad antagonist in the Fox News Cinematic Universe, a target of MAGA-world online ire, and a stump-speech punching bag for Trump himself.

But Smith almost certainly has seen worse. How so? He most recently served as the chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague, where he investigated war crimes committed during the Kosovo War—and from 2008 to 2010, he oversaw war crimes investigations at the International Criminal Court. 

Patrick Hruby
Deputy Editor