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Semafor LogoMorgan Chalfant
Morgan Chalfant
politicsNorth America

The conservative attacks on Jack Smith are just starting

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Title iconThe News
U.S. Department of Justice

If you talk to any of Jack Smith's former colleagues, they'll tell you two things about the longtime prosecutor now tasked with investigating former president Donald Trump.

First, he’s used to working in the political spotlight.

Second, he handles it by tuning out the attention.

“He’s just going to come in, his head is going to be down, he’s not going to pay attention to the noise and all the politics,” said Colleen Kavanaugh, who worked with Smith on the high-profile prosecution of a gang member who killed two police officers while at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

Smith, who up until recently was a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, is already facing attacks from the right—Trump alone has blasted out criticism of him on Truth Social 20 separate times. In his latest broadside, the former president called Smith a “highly partisan Trump hater.”

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The former president’s conservative media allies have also suggested Smith may be politically biased based on his wife’s history of donating to Democrats, as well as her work producing a documentary about Michelle Obama.

There are no records of Smith himself making political contributions and those who know him described him as apolitical.

“It’s his wife. It’s not him,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “To automatically attribute one to the other doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Kelly Currie, a former federal prosecutor who also worked with Smith in the Eastern District, said he wasn’t politically motivated “at all.” He added that Smith is prepared for the role of special counsel thanks to his experience leading the DOJ’s Public Integrity section, where he oversaw cases involving high-profile politicians from both parties, including Bob McDonnell, the Republican former governor of Virginia, and John Edwards, the former Democratic vice presidential hopeful.

“You just understand that you’re going to be under more scrutiny and the scrutiny is not going to bother Jack,” Currie said. “That scrutiny is going to run off his back like water off a duck.”

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Smith is overseeing investigations into Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and aspects of the Jan. 6 insurrection criminal inquiry, and the decision on whether to move forward with charges against Trump or any of his allies will ultimately fall to him.

“Jack was born to quarterback big cases,” Kavanaugh said. “That doesn’t always mean even charging a case, right? It’s just following the evidence until you have all of the information in order to make decisions and evaluate the law and the evidence together.”

undefined headshotMorgan's view

Smith’s aversion to the media circus and apolitical reputation could help insulate him against right-wing criticism, or at least tamp it down a bit.

For instance, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a Fox News regular who famously called Trump’s second impeachment “unconstitutional,” has described Smith as a “solid appointment.” Speaking to CNN, a Republican source also complimented Smith’s 2010 decision not to bring charges against former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Still, Trump’s attacks on him are likely to only grow louder. Swipes at the Justice Department have been a mainstay of his political rallies since former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and Trump is trying to portray himself as the victim again. Mueller’s disapproval rating among Republicans ballooned over the course of his investigation, according to a Washington Post analysis of public opinion at the time.

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Smith has advantages that Mueller did not — for one, he’s not investigating the occupant of the Oval Office and therefore isn’t under the constant threat of firing or sabotage.

But a Republican-controlled Congress could also try to disrupt his work. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is expected to lead the powerful House Judiciary Committee, was quick to point out that Smith was interviewed by Republicans as part of the investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative groups, claiming that his involvement with that controversy showed he may have a political bias.

Smith, who headed the public integrity section at the time, testified that his office discussed opening investigations into politically active nonprofits after a meeting with then-IRS chief Lois Lerner but didn’t do so, according to CNN.

Jordan suggested on Fox Business earlier this month that Smith’s inquiries could be an avenue of investigation: “So, this is why we're going to look into this issue, and we're going to get to the bottom of everything they've been doing at the politicized DOJ.”

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

At least one veteran Trump investigator thinks that Smith may need to learn the art of media management to succeed in his new role. Andrew Weissmann, who was a member of Mueller’s team, recommended Smith speak up to clear up confusion and counter false narratives about the investigation, arguing Mueller erred in not communicating enough.

“Neither the current special counsel regulations nor Justice Department rules require Mr. Smith to take a vow of silence with the American public,” Weissmann wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “His ability to explain and educate will be critical to the acceptance of the department’s mission by the American public.”

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