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2023 was the year of special counsel appointments for cases involving Trump and Biden

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

There have been three high-profile appointments in just over a year by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: Today I signed an order appointing Jack Smith to serve as special counsel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLAND: I signed an order appointing Robert Hur as special counsel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLAND: I'm here today to announce the appointment of David Weiss as a special counsel.

SCHMITZ: These prosecutors are looking into former President Donald Trump, the current president, Joe Biden, and Biden's son, Hunter. And all the investigations could play a big role in the 2024 presidential campaigns. To discuss the implications, we're joined by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

SCHMITZ: So given the sensitivity of these investigations of two leading candidates for president, remind us, how did the Justice Department get embroiled in all of this?

JOHNSON: The DOJ has been investigating Donald Trump over documents - highly classified documents - that Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago resort and refused to return. It's also been investigating Trump over the efforts to overthrow the last presidential election. The FBI has been investigating the current president, Joe Biden, after classified documents were found at an office he used in Washington and at one of his residences in Delaware. And then the Justice Department has also been investigating Hunter Biden's taxes and possession of a gun while he was addicted to drugs. Of course, these are not at all the same level of seriousness. Trump now faces two separate indictments in Florida and D.C. Hunter Biden, who's not a political candidate, faces two other indictments in Delaware and California. And Joe Biden has not been charged with any crime.

SCHMITZ: That sounds like a lot of work for prosecutors. What makes the special counsels leading these investigations special?

JOHNSON: They operate outside of day-to-day supervision from the Justice Department. And this process is designed for cases where there may be a conflict of interest, where the attorney general might be recused. And they're supposed to operate in the public interest. These lawyers tend to be attorneys who have worked for the Justice Department in the past, sometimes in very high-level jobs. Jack Smith, who's been leading the Trump probe, is a former prosecutor and justice official in the Obama years. Robert Hur, who's leading the Joe Biden probe, is a former prosecutor and justice official in the Trump years. And David Weiss, who's investigating Hunter Biden, is the U.S. attorney in Delaware. He's a holdover from the Trump era too.

SCHMITZ: So, I mean, with three of them, though, I mean, how special are they?

JOHNSON: That's exactly what some experts are asking. Their argument is the Justice Department is supposed to act based on the facts and the law, not on political considerations, so why not have regular lawyers at DOJ lead these kinds of cases? Chuck Rosenberg worked for the FBI in the Justice Department. Here's what he says about that.

CHUCK ROSENBERG: It's almost, in a sense, saying that we can't trust an apolitical department to do apolitical work, though in my view, we can and we should trust them to do exactly that.

JOHNSON: Prosecutors at the Justice Department have handled terrorism cases and political corruption cases for decades. Chuck Rosenberg says the Justice Department has appointed five special counsels over the past six years, and that may be too many.

SCHMITZ: So, I mean, what are the benefits of naming a special counsel supposed to be?

JOHNSON: Well, one big one is speed. These people can work faster than the normal channels at the Justice Department, which have lots of layers of review. They're also generally focused on one narrow mission so they can concentrate their efforts. The other is the idea that they're apolitical. But that hasn't worked out too well in the recent past. Again, here's former prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg.

ROSENBERG: The attacks on them have been relentless - attacks on Bob Mueller when he was special counsel, attacks on Jack Smith today, while he serves as special counsel.

JOHNSON: The people doing the attacking in those instances are former President Trump, his allies in Congress and some of his supporters. Jack Smith, for instance, has nearly constant security, given all the threats.

SCHMITZ: Carrie, you know, as we begin a new year, what do you expect out of these special counsel probes?

JOHNSON: Two sources are telling me the investigation of Joe Biden for having classified material at his office in his home is close to an end. It's unlikely, they say, we'll see charges there. But the prosecutor is writing a report that we may be able to see in the new year. It's still sure to become a conversation point in the campaign. And as for Donald Trump, he's pleaded not guilty to two federal indictments in D.C. and Florida. His D.C. trial is set for March, but that's on hold while he argues that he should get lifetime immunity from prosecution because he was president at the time of January 6 - not clear right now if Trump is going to face trial next year, but these prosecutions have been a key part of his campaign. And as for Hunter Biden, he is now fighting those charges in two different jurisdictions too. And unless he reaches a plea deal, he could be going to trial in a year his father is running to return to the White House.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "CUANDO LLORA EL CIELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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