Trump seizes on special counsel as a rallying cry for 2024

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces his appointment of Jack Smith as a special counsel for the investigations of former President Donald Trump, in the briefing room of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2022.

Former President Trump declared this week in his 2024 campaign announcement that the single gravest threat to “our civilization” was the Justice Department, which has been investigating his alleged mishandling of classified documents and his role in the effort to prevent his successor from taking office.

When Attorney General Merrick Garland responded Friday by appointing a special counsel to take over the Trump investigations – an effort to put to rest claims that they were politicized – the former president simply doubled down. He described Garland’s announcement to Fox News as “the worst politicization of justice in our country” and called on the Republican Party to “stand up and fight” on his behalf.

The decision by Trump to conflate his political ambitions and potential criminal exposure – elevating the issue as a central plank of his campaign – has created a dramatic and bizarre beginning to the 2024 presidential race, in which Trump appears likely to face a large and energized field of rivals for the Republican nomination. Rather than a contest over policy or the direction of the country, Trump’s anger at the investigations of his conduct have framed the first arguments of the race as a debate over his own behavior and the response of federal investigators.

Democrats believe they will ultimately benefit from Trump’s decision to embrace claims of a grand conspiracy against him. They point to the results of the midterm elections, which broadly rejected candidates who embraced conspiratorial legal theories pushed by Trump.

“One of the lessons from the election was that voters rejected election deniers, anti-democracy candidates and just kind of crazy in general. There were a certain number of voters who were voting for sanity,” Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch, of the Global Strategy Group, said. “Trump making his campaign a campaign about judicial prosecution and the Republicans making their focus on investigations of Hunter Biden – all that stuff is very risky for them.”

Several of Trump’s advisers, on the other hand, view the Justice Department’s investigations as a potential political asset and a potent rallying cry, especially in a contested GOP nomination fight for voters who identify with Trump’s politics of grievance. They point out that the former president was able to turn the last special counsel who investigated him, Robert S. Mueller III, into a political symbol of his 2020 campaign, and argue many voters will come to see Trump’s legal troubles as an extension of their own struggles.

“If they can do this to the administration’s most formidable political opponent, if they can do this to the former president of the United States, they can do this to any American,” said one Trump political adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about political strategy. Trump’s advisers said they were not given any advance notice about Garland’s announcement Friday.

Trump had argued at length that investigations of himself and his family were existential threats to the nation, and his inner circle has speculated that his status as a candidate could make it harder for state and federal authorities to indict or convict him.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has sued Trump and his company for financial fraud. Fani T. Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, has convened a separate grand jury to investigate alleged attempts by Trump to subvert the 2020 election result, including a recorded call in which Trump asked Georgia official to “find” the votes he needed to win.

In his announcement speech at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, Tuesday night, Trump argued that the criminal investigation of his family was the greatest of all the “gravest threats” facing the country.

“We must conduct a top to bottom overhaul to clean out the festering rot and corruption of Washington D.C.,” he said in his first speech as a candidate. “I’m a victim. I will tell you. I’m a victim.”

The Biden administration has been doing what it can to demonstrate that the investigations into Trump are not political. The Biden White House declined to comment Friday on the appointment of Jack Smith, a former chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section who has most recently worked in Europe as a war crimes prosecutor.

“DOJ makes decisions about its criminal investigations independently, and we are not involved,” a White House official said in a statement. “I would refer you to the DOJ for any questions on this.”

Garland also tried to make clear that the appointment of a special counsel was a routine decision that followed prosecutorial discretion.

“The Department of Justice has long recognized that in certain extraordinary cases it is in the public interest to appoint a special prosecutor to independently manage and investigation and prosecution,” Garland said. “Based on recent developments, including the former president’s announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election and the sitting president’s stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.”

Republicans reacted to the announcement with disappointment and anger. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, claimed, without evidence, that Biden had “completely weaponized the Department of Justice to attack his political opponents.”

“3 days ago, Trump announced and now a special counsel,” he tweeted. “This is Trump derangement syndrome but this time with a gun and a badge.”

Even Republican critics of Trump, like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is considering announcing a presidential campaign in January, also expressed concern about the implications of a special counsel. “This means the issue will extend way into the 2024 election cycle,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “It will be a distraction.”

The continued investigation of Trump is likely to become a subject of oversight hearings in the House, when Republicans take over control next year. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has proposed seeking Biden’s impeachment the moment Republicans take control of the House, tweeted Friday that “Republicans will need to refuse to appropriate any funding to Merrick Garland’s special counsel.”

Trump, in an interview Friday, suggested that he would not engage with the special counsel’s investigation as it moved forward. It was a clear sign that he preferred to handle his potential legal liabilities as a matter of politics.

“I am not going to partake in this,” he told Fox News of the investigation.