Jack Smith, the special counsel in two key cases against Donald Trump (the Mar-a-Lago classified papers and the former president’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election result), is described by his colleagues as a fearless man with a determination that goes beyond the usual calculation of cost and benefits: if he thinks a case should be prosecuted, he won’t care about the consequences. His hands did not shake when it came to pursuing convictions against war criminals during his tenure at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague; nor when prosecuting members of street gangs in the violent New York of the 1990s, investigating bad police practices or scrutinizing financial crimes. But to tangle with Trump, more than audacity, Smith will need guts. The same ones that probably carry him through the Iron Man triathlons he participates in (in places like Germany, Brazil, Canada or Denmark) and on his demanding bike rides.
When U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland contacted the 54-year-old Smith last year, he and his team had just scored a victory with the conviction of Salih Mustafa, a former guerrilla leader in Kosovo, and were preparing a case against the country’s former president, Hashim Thaci — backed by both Democratic and Republican Administrations — for atrocities committed during the 1998-1999 conflict. After an early experience in The Hague in 2008, Smith was in charge from 2015 until last fall of the ICC’s special section for Kosovo. But when he received Garland’s offer to supervise the cases against Trump, he did not think twice: if he had forged his career winning tough cases against mobsters and corrupt police officers in New York, and later against war criminals, he was not going to be intimidated by cases whose outcome seemed clear. Smith himself pointed out this Friday that the classified papers case will require no more than a brief trial.
With no known political affiliation and a passion for sports that has occasionally left him in bad shape, Smith was appointed with the goal of concluding the investigation before the 2024 presidential primaries get off the ground. Thus, he returned to the Department of Justice, where he began his career. On accepting the offer, he stressed that he felt more of a personal and professional commitment to the Justice Department than to the court of The Hague, even if this meant leaving cases such as Thaci’s halfway through. A spectacular bicycle accident delayed his return to Washington for two months, until December.
Smith is a mixture of firmness and courage, plus large doses of perseverance, virtues that he demonstrated during his investigation of the Kosovo leaders by holding firm against the pressure received, including from the White House under Trump. “Impartial, determined, energetic, focused” on the investigation of the facts, Garland defined him when he announced his appointment. A graduate of Harvard, he began his career as an Assistant District Attorney for the New York County District Attorney’s Office in 1994 and became Assistant District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York in 1999. In the latter role, he prosecuted cases for nine years ranging from gang murders of police officers to civil rights violations. From 2010 to 2015, he was in charge of the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice, leading a team of more than 30 prosecutors dedicated to cases of corruption and electoral crimes throughout the country. It was a position not unlike his current task of scrutinizing Trump’s actions, and during which he investigated three elected officials.
As a prosecutor in New York, he also had to investigate numerous cases of financial crimes, very common in the courts of the global capital of finance. That versatility with both white-collar crimes and bloody mob crimes has bolstered his reputation: he’s just as capable of getting charges dropped against an innocent person as he is of getting a guilty one convicted. “If the case is prosecutable, he will do it. He is fearless,” said a colleague who worked with him when they were both New York prosecutors, in statements to Reuters on Friday. One of his mentors was longtime Manhattan prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, known for his harassment of mob bosses.
Smith has dished out justice left and right. He helped prosecute one of the officers involved in a high-profile case of police brutality in 1997; the victim, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, was sodomized by several agents with a broomstick after being arrested. Smith also succeeded in securing a conviction against the leader of a drug gang who murdered two plainclothes officers in New York. His experience at the newly created special tribunal for Kosovo gives him the ability to set the rules of the game and decide when to follow them and when to improvise. “It is not the easiest decision in the world. You really have to have confidence in yourself,” David Schwendiman, his predecessor at the Kosovo court, said in January. “And you have to be bold enough to make the decision.”
Under his watch, grand juries convened in Washington have been subpoenaing witnesses for months. For someone with a Manichaean conception of life like Trump, who is fond of labeling everything with his basic, dichotomous language (loser, hater), Smith’s circumspection must be unbearable. “His wife [filmmaker Katy Chevigny] is a Trump hater, he himself is a Trump hater,” the Republican candidate wrote on Friday on his social media platform Truth Social, alluding to himself in the third person as if he were the Pope or a Roman emperor. The fact that Chevigny filmed a documentary about Michelle Obama confirms that the cases against him are a political witch-hunt, according to Trump. Smith’s reply, in an appearance before the media that same day, could not have been more sobering: “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
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