US Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday named a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at former president Donald Trump’s Florida estate.
The special counsel will also oversee key aspects of a separate investigation into the January 6 insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
In the US legal system, an attorney general can assign a semi-independent investigator on politically sensitive probes to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Mr Garland named veteran prosecutor Jack Smith as the special counsel. He has prosecuted Kosovo war crimes at The Hague and is a former chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section.
"I intend to conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them, independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice," Mr Smith said in a statement.
"I will exercise independent judgement and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate."
The Justice Department described Mr Smith as a registered independent, an effort to blunt any attack of perceived political bias.
Mr Garland said Mr Smith would begin his work "immediately", as soon as he returns to the US from The Hague.
"Throughout his career, Jack Smith has built a reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor who leads teams with energy and focus to follow the facts wherever they lead," Mr Garland said at a news conference.
Special counsels have been assigned to a range of high-profile investigations in the US. These include Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and Kenneth Starr, who in the 1990s investigated then-president Bill Clinton.
Mr Trump told Fox News that appointing a special counsel was "unfair".
"I hope the Republicans have the courage to fight this," he said.
"I have been proven innocent for six years on everything — from fake impeachments to Mueller, who found no collusion, and now I have to do it more .... It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political.”
Mr Smith's appointment, which was announced three days after Mr Trump announced his 2024 presidential candidacy, is a recognition of the unmistakable political implications of two investigations that involve not only a former president but also a current White House hopeful.
Though the appointment installs a new supervisor for the investigations — both of which are expected to accelerate now that the midterm elections are complete — the special counsel will still report to Mr Garland, who has ultimate say in whether to bring charges.