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Why Trump’s smear campaign tactics won't work (as well) on Jack Smith

It will be harder for Democrats and Republicans — and Trump — to use politics to undermine this special counsel's conclusions.
Jack Smith
Jack Smith in The Hague in 2020.Jerry Lampen / AFP via Getty Images Pool file

Special prosecutors appointed to conduct criminal investigations of potential wrongdoing have struck fear into the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Former President Donald Trump has officially been indicted on seven charges, meaning he could be the latest to fall into that category.

The Iran-Contra investigation dragged on for close to eight years; Ken Starr pursued Bill Clinton relentlessly in the 1990s, resulting in Clinton’s impeachment over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky; Pat Fitzgerald pursued the leak that outed the identity of a CIA operative. These investigations all took on lives of their own, and many questioned if all the time, money, effort and heartburn were worth it. 

These investigations all took on lives of their own, and many questioned if all the time, money, effort and heartburn were worth it.

Former President Donald Trump experienced this same sort of investigation over potential Russian interference in the 2016 election. Robert Mueller’s probe concluded without criminal charges for the former president. But the legal peril facing Trump in 2023 feels very different, given the number of legal entanglements tormenting the former president and audio recordings potentially capturing his alleged misconduct in his own words.

Much of Trump’s fate currently rests in the hands of a different special prosecutor. And unlike the indictment in New York involving the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal payments, or the Georgia election tampering matter in Fulton County, Trump will have a much harder time vilifying Jack Smith. His background and reputation require no caveats. 

Most recently, Smith had been working in The Hague, investigating war crimes in Kosovo. Before that, he’d worked as a prosecutor in New York City, the Eastern District of New York and the Middle District of Tennessee. He’s investigated everything from gang killings and crimes against humanity to public corruption.

Pre-Trump, the idea that a former president of the United States would viciously and publicly insult and undermine the prosecutors investigating him would have been absurd. But this is not a politician — or political movement — that respects the criminal justice system. Indeed, it’s already clear that, whatever the merits of the cases investigated by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, Trump and his allies have found plenty of angles of attack.

For one thing, both of those prosecutors are elected Democrats, enabling Trump to hammer them as politically motivated hacks. As an unelected career prosecutor, Smith is not currently aligned with a political party. Trump can complain about witch hunts all he wants, but political bias is far harder to argue with Smith — at least with a straight face. And it should be harder for both Democrats and Republicans to use politics to undermine his conclusions. 

Trump has also attacked Bragg, Willis and New York Attorney General Letitia James — who are all Black — as “racists” bent on destroying him. Such rhetoric is clearly out of bounds. He even called Bragg “an animal.” These smears are meant to intimidate the prosecutors, their staff and their families. (If Trump continues down this path of verbal retribution, he could find himself in more legal peril and be charged with intimidation. How long will judges allow these sorts of attacks to continue before intervening?) 

Mercifully, Trump has yet to call Smith, who is white, a racist, but he has not been kind either. “Terrorist,” “thug,” “criminal,” “monster,” “mad dog psycho” and “hit man” are all words Trump has vomited forth about Smith. Whatever benefit Trump believes such attacks may yield in the court of public opinion will most assuredly not enhance his case in a court of law. There is nothing like a trial in a federal courtroom to humble the most blustering big mouths.

And unlike with the E. Jean Carroll civil trial, Trump must appear in the courtroom for criminal trials, where there will be zero tolerance for schoolyard taunts.

The primary criticism against special counsel investigations is that they wander too far afield from their original charge and become all-consuming affairs. That is also not the case with Jack Smith. His investigation, which started with his appointment by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November 2022, moved relatively quickly. Now, at least one of the probes is wrapping up expeditiously. But neither has Smith rushed. The politics and precedent of charging a former president and current presidential candidate were not lost on him. And that could go a long way in retaining the attention of the American people and restoring the public’s faith in the efficacy of special prosecutors more generally, on both sides of the aisle.