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Opinion Garland’s appointment of a special counsel was cautious. But also bold.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Justice Department on Friday. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg News)
6 min

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday made a typically cautious decision in a bold way: He appointed a special counsel to investigate former president Donald Trump, but chose a veteran lawyer known for an aggressive streak and a fast prosecutorial metabolism.

This was a step Garland didn’t want to take; he believed the department’s career lawyers were capable of doing the job with integrity and independence. But he had been anticipating — and, careful lawyer that he is, preparing for — this possibility for months.

The first shoe to drop was President Biden’s statement that he intended to run again. That wasn’t enough, in Garland’s assessment, to trigger the requirements of the Justice Department’s special counsel regulations. Even if Trump was teasing another presidential run, the department’s twin investigations — into the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — could proceed as normal.

But Trump’s announcement that he would enter the 2024 race forced Garland’s reluctant hand. The rules, he believed, didn’t leave him any choice.

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I thought Garland had more leeway to make the judgment call the other way, but in retrospect it seems almost inevitable that the by-the-books attorney general would go the special counsel route. Justice Department regulations provide that the attorney “will appoint a Special Counsel when he or she determines that criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted” and that investigation or prosecution “would present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances.”

The regulations offer an out, one I previously wrote that Garland should take: The attorney general doesn’t have to name a special counsel if he decides that would not be in the public interest. But consider: An administration headed by a president who has announced his intention to seek reelection is investigating a former president who just declared he will run again. If this does not constitute an extraordinary circumstance, what would? What lesson would not appointing a special counsel send to future attorneys general? These are serious concerns.

If Garland had a mission on leaving the bench to return to Justice, it was to repair the department’s reputation for independence and integrity, battered after four years of Trump administration meddling, and to reassure its demoralized troops. Naming a special counsel was never going to assuage the concerns of Trump partisans that the Biden administration is out to get him, as the immediate reaction from Trumpworld underscored. Trump denounced the effort to take any whiff of politics out of the decision-making as “the worst politicization of justice in our country.” A Trump campaign spokesperson called the announcement “a totally expected political stunt by a feckless, politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice.”

But Garland’s goal was not to persuade the unpersuadable. It was, in the familiar language of the law, aimed at how a reasonable person would perceive the fairness of the investigation, and whether a reasonable person would think a special counsel was warranted under the facts at hand and the language and spirit of the regulations. It was telling that in this regard, Garland did not acknowledge that investigating Trump constituted a conflict of interest for the department — just that the circumstances had become extraordinary.

“I strongly believe that the normal processes of this department can handle all investigations with integrity,” Garland said. “And I also believe that appointing a special counsel at this time is the right thing to do.”

This is where the bold part comes in: Special counsels usually have big names. Former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, tapped to oversee the Trump-Russia probe, is the most recent such example. History offers others: Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox to conduct the Watergate investigation as special prosecutor; former U.S. attorney Robert Fiske and then former appeals court judge Kenneth Starr to handle the Whitewater investigation as independent counsels. They came to the job with a public reputation that, at least in theory, lent credibility to their oversight.

Jack Smith, Garland’s choice, is decidedly low profile. I spoke with a number of former prosecutors who not only didn’t know Smith — they hadn’t even heard of him. But Smith, a longtime federal prosecutor who has been working at The Hague investigating war crimes in Kosovo, offers advantages that the boldface names don’t. He knows how the department works. He knows how to speed an investigation along. “Stop playing with your food,” Mueller used to instruct hand-wringing prosecutors. Smith is, by all accounts, no food-player. And he offers a potential counter-balance to Garland’s innate cautiousness; hard-charging is the word that comes up in speaking with former colleagues.

“Jack Smith makes me look like a golden retriever puppy,” tweeted Andrew Weissmann, the famously aggressive former Enron and Mueller prosecutor who worked with Smith for years in the federal prosecutor’s Brooklyn office.

One example of Smith’s inclination to aggressiveness: the 2011 decision to charge former North Carolina senator John Edwards for accepting illegal presidential campaign contributions to help support his mistress. This was a stretch, as I wrote at the time, and the subject of controversy within the department. Smith, the head of the department’s Public Integrity Section, pressed to indict. The case ultimately fizzled as a jury acquitted Edwards on one count and deadlocked on five others; the department chose not to seek a retrial.

“For those concerned that the appointment of a Special Counsel will delay things: just the opposite,” Weissmann wrote. “Jack is a super fast, no-nonsense, and let’s-cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. And now, with less DOJ bureaucracy in decision-making, the investigations can move faster.”

That may be over-optimistic, but Trump should not sleep soundly. As a prosecutor, “you have to be able to admit that if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Smith said when he took the public integrity job in 2010. “I think that’s hard for people to do and having been a prosecutor for 15 years that is something I can do.”

A fair point, and an important one. Still, logic suggests that the arrival of a hard-charging prosecutor is an ominous sign for Trump: Smith didn’t leave his job as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague to preside over a non-case.