Last fall, a largely unknown former prosecutor with a beard and a brisk walk flew unnoticed to Washington from The Hague after being summoned to a secret meeting by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.
Jack Smith’s job interview would remain unknown to all but a handful of department officials until hours before he was named a special counsel to oversee two investigations into former President Donald J. Trump in mid-November.
During the past few months of hectic activity, Mr. Smith’s anonymity gone. He has now impeached Mr Trump twice: in June for endangering national security secrets by taking classified documents from the White House, and on Tuesday, in connection with his widespread efforts to undermine democracy and overturn a 2020 election, he lost clear.
And he has taken these actions with remarkable speed, aggressiveness, and apparent indifference to concomitant political consequences.
“He moves at a very fast clip — not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good — to the point that sometimes I worry that maybe they’re going a little too fast and haven’t got everything buttoned up,” said Ryan Goodman, a professor at New York University School of Law, before the release of the indictment in the election case.
Mr. Smith told reporters that the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol was “fueled by lies” – Mr. Trump’s lies – during brief remarks Tuesday after a Washington grand jury indicted the former president on four counts.
Mr. Smith is not the first special counsel to investigate Mr. Trump. From 2017 to 2019, Robert S. Mueller III investigated the connections between Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. In his final report, he outlined a frantic effort by Mr. Trump to thwart a federal investigation, but ultimately cited a Justice Department policy that did not rule on whether the sitting president had committed a crime. Mr. Smith, on the other hand, faces no such limits, as Mr. Trump is no longer in office.
But where Mr. Mueller took two years to wrap up his investigations into Mr. Trump, Mr. Smith — who took over investigations into Mr. Trump that were several months old — delivered his basic assessment in two criminal investigations in just over eight months.
Beyond the contrast in circumstances and timing, there are undeniable differences between the two men, rooted in their respective ages, experiences, management styles and prosecutorial philosophies, that have shaped their divergent charging decisions.
“His position, compared to Mueller’s, seems very different — he’s working against the clock, Mueller moved much more slowly,” Mr. Goodman, who co-founded Just Security, an online publication that has closely monitored the Trump investigations.
Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans have accused Mr. Smith, without evidence, to pursue a politically motivated investigation aimed at destroying Mr. Trump’s chances of recapturing the White House, including by leaking details of the case. But department officials have said Mr. Smith is committed to conducting a fair investigation, and he has defended his own lawyers against attacks from the Trump team, which accuses them of using unethical tactics.
The former president has started calling Mr. Smith “disturbed” and some of his supporters have threatened the special counsel, his family and his team — prompting the U.S. Marshals to spend $1.9 million to provide protection to those who have been targeted, according to federal expenditure reports covering the first four months of his term in office. Mr. Smith was flanked by a three-person security detail inside his own building as he delivered remarks to reporters on Tuesday.
Mr. Mueller was an established and trusted national figure when he was appointed special counsel, unlike Mr. Smith, who was virtually unknown outside the department and had a mixed record during his tenure. Sir. Mueller had already cemented a reputation as the most important FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover, having protected and reshaped the agency at a time when some called for breaking it up after the intelligence failures that preceded Sept. 11, 2001. terrorist attack.
But there was at times a gulf between the perception of Mr. Mueller and his ability to do a difficult job under fire. Already in the mid-70s, he struck many of those who worked with him as a remarkably diminutive figure who, when testifying before Congress at the end of the investigation, did not fully grasp the facts of his complex investigation.
In comparison, Mr. Smith someone who rose to the upper echelons of the Justice Department but is not well known outside of law enforcement circles. As a 54-year-old leader, Mr. Smith, a lifelong prosecutor, the investigation at the height of his career, not at the end of it.
Mr. Fresh from a stint as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague, Smith took over two investigations that were already well advanced. Mr. Smith sees himself as a ground-level prosecutor, paid to make a series of quick decisions. He is determined to do everything he can to quickly strengthen a case (or close it) – by squeezing witnesses and using prosecutorial tools such as summoning potential targets for prosecution before a grand jury to emphasize the seriousness of his investigations, people close to him have said.
When Mr. Smith took over as head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Unit in 2010, the unit reeling from the collapse of a criminal case against former Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska. In his first few months on the job, he closed several high-profile investigations into members of Congress without charges.
At that time, Mr. Smith the suggestion that he had lost his temper. “If I were the kind that could be cowed,” he said, “I’d find another line of business.”
Among his more notable corruption cases were a conviction of Robert McDonnell, the Republican former governor of Virginia, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court, and a conviction of former Representative Rick Renzi, the Republican of Arizona, which Mr. During his last sentence, Trump pardoned hours as president.
Mr. Smith appears to be somewhat more involved than Mr. Mueller in the details of his investigations. Even so, he rarely sits personally in witness interviews – and spoke only sparingly during two meetings with Mr. Trump’s defense attorneys, where he delegated the discussions to subordinates, according to people familiar with the situation.
Mr. Smith’s stony style, whether intentional or not, has the effect of sowing considerable uneasiness across a conference table or courtroom.
James Trusty, who left the former president’s defense team a day after meeting with Mr. Smith’s team in June, worked for years with Mr. Smith as a senior criminal prosecutor at Justice Department headquarters, telling staff he was a “serious” adversary not to be underestimated. Other lawyers said Mr. Smith’s team has fed the sense of mystery by describing him in veiled or cryptic terms, with one calling him “the man behind the curtain.”
He has been more public than Mr. Mueller in one critical respect — making brief, sober statements to the news media after each grand jury indictment.
Sir. Mueller said little when faced with a barrage of falsehoods pushed publicly by Mr. Trump and his allies about him and his investigative team. But at a press conference after Mr. Trump was indicted in the documents case, Mr. Smith appeared to speak with an additional purpose: to refute allegations that one of his accusers, Jay I. Bratt, improperly vis had pressured a defense lawyer representing a. by Mr. Trump’s co-defendant, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
“The prosecutors in my office are among the most talented and experienced in the Department of Justice,” he said. “They have investigated this case to the highest ethical standards.”
While much attention has focused on Mr. Smith, most of the day-to-day work on critical elements of the case has been done by several prosecutors known for their aggressive approaches.
One of them is JP Cooney, the former head of the public corruption division of the US attorney’s office in Washington. Mr. Cooney has worked on several politically charged lawsuits and investigations that drew Republicans and Democrats alike.
He unsuccessfully prosecuted two Democrats — Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Greg Craig, a former White House counsel during the Obama administration — and investigated Andrew G. McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who was vilified by Mr. Trump for the agency’s Russia. investigation. (Mr McCabe was never prosecuted.)
Recently, Mr. Cooney the lawyers who prosecuted Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime political adviser to Mr. Trump. The lawyers quit in protest after the Justice Department under William P. Barr intervened in his sentencing. (Mr. Cooney was deeply upset by the crackdown, but he said the case was “not the hill worth dying on,” according to Aaron Zelinsky, a career prosecutor who testified before the House Oversight Committee in 2020.)
Another key player is Thomas P. Windom, who was brought in almost a year before Mr. Smith’s appointment to coordinate the complicated investigation on Jan. 6, who had once sat in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.
Mr. Smith has tapped FBI agents to carry out investigative assignments, which is not uncommon for special counsel. But the FBI is not cut off from Mr. Smith’s investigation, in contrast to the agents who were appointed to work for John H. Durham, a special counsel who investigated the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
In a letter to House Republicans in June, Carlos F. Uriarte, the Justice Department’s director of legislative affairs, revealed that Mr. Smith employed about 26 special agents, and additional agents were hired “from time to time” for specific tasks related to investigations.
Mr. Smith, unlike many previous special counsels, did not hire most of the staff: He inherited two existing Trump investigations and moved them from Justice Department headquarters to his new office across town. Some of the investigative work was also conducted by investigators with the US Postal Inspection Service and agents with the Department of Justice’s inspector general, working with Mr. Windom at some point.
However, he has exercised direct control over both inquiries, trying to keep even the most common information about his efforts out of the news media, being present if sotto voce, at the most critical times.
Under Mr. Trump’s court hearing in Miami in June, sat Mr. Smith in the gallery and followed the case closely. Some in the courtroom suggested he was staring at Mr. Trump for most of the hearing, which made him bigger.
But that wasn’t really the case. He listened attentively to the attorneys on both sides, and at times leaned toward a colleague to make a whispered comment or ask a question.
Alan Feuer contributed with reporting.