Inside the decision to appoint a special counsel to oversee Trump investigations
Judge Merrick Garland testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be US Attorney General(AFP)

The rollout of the special counsel to investigate Donald Trump revealed a subtle shift in attorney general Merrick Garland's approach to the criminal inquiries into the former president.

Garland had hoped to avoid taking that step but found it was necessary after Trump announced his entry into the 2024 presidential race and Republicans increasingly coming to his defense by accusing the attorney general of weaponizing the Justice Department against them, reported the New York Times.

“There is a political dimension that can’t be ignored — this is an investigation that is being used by the target and his allies as a mobilization moment in a political campaign,” said former federal prosecutor Daniel C. Richman, a law professor at Columbia University. “That’s why you are seeing the department leaning forward in making these moves, and getting as much detailed information about an ongoing investigation out there as it can.”

Garland has generally avoided making public statements about the investigations into Trump, but he signed off on the decision to release a single photo of the top-secret files FBI agents seized at Mar-a-Lago as proof that he hadn't complied with a subpoena seeking their return.

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The attorney general finally appointed Jack Smith as special counsel on Nov. 18, saying the move was unavoidable under the law due to "extraordinary circumstances," and the Times reported Garland will most likely accept his conclusions unless he finds them to be “inappropriate or unwarranted."

Smith, a registered independent who once led DOJ's public integrity unit, will oversee the merger of two sprawling investigations, involving dozens of prosecutors, into Trump's retention of classified documents and his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Appointing a special counsel became a more serious option after FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, and the discussions became more intense as the midterm elections approached.

Garland finally pulled the trigger this month after Trump formally announced his candidacy and President Joe Biden suggested that he would seek re-election.