Without fanfare, the Justice Department's investigation into former President Donald J. Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election is approaching a major milestone.
After nearly nine months of behind-the-scenes clashes, Trump's lawyers have largely lost their battle to limit the testimony of some of his closest aides to a federal grand jury. The decision, in a series of linked cases, represents a near-total failure by Trump to limit the probe's reach and has strengthened the position of Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing the investigation, as he compiled earlier case reports. the president's attempts to hold on to power after his defeat at the polls.
Having lost their challenge to a grand jury subpoena and largely failing to limit the scope of their testimony to statements of executive privilege and attorney-client, the last group of aides are now forced to answer questions.
On Tuesday, Stephen Miller, a prominent advisor and speechwriter for Mr. Trump, appeared in Federal District Court in Washington and spent several hours in front of a grand jury. On Thursday, it was John Ratcliffe, the former director of national intelligence. The process could culminate towards the end of this month with the appearance of former Vice President Mike Pence.
While questions remain pending appeal and potential attempts by some witnesses to delay matters further by invoking the Fifth Amendment, developments suggest that Mr. Smith has nearly completed the fact-finding phase of his work and is moving closer to a decision. about seeking accusations against Mr Trump and others.
There is no clear indication as to when Mr. Smith will decide about the charges in the case, but he faces pressure on several fronts to keep the process moving.
Political season could be a consideration: The 2024 presidential election is heating up, with Trump still considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and the first debate of the GOP primary season has been scheduled for August.
On the legal front, a looming decision by a district attorney in Georgia, Fani T. Willis, on whether to seek indictment against Mr Trump on charges related to his attempt to overturn his election defeat has added to the pressure on Mr Smith, who must decide whether to allow another prosecutor. bringing similar charges first could make it difficult to prosecute whatever he's doing.
“The speed of the Georgia state investigation increases the pressure on Jack Smith to move swiftly and present his witnesses before a federal grand jury right now,” said John P. Fishwick Jr., an Obama appointee who served as US attorney for the case. Western District of Virginia from 2015 to 2017. “Once the state indictments are down, it could really hinder the DOJ's investigation.”
Among those who have worked with him, Mr. Smith is seen as a diligent manager who is determined to gather the information needed to make decisions while remaining aware of time pressures and the highly partisan atmosphere in which he operates.
In his first and only public comments—a statement emailed to reporters shortly after his appointment in November—he vowed that the pace of his Trump investigation “will not stall or stall,” noting that he will “advance the investigation with confidence.” swiftly and thoroughly to whatever outcome is determined by facts and law.”
Mr Smith also oversaw a parallel investigation into Mr Trump's handling of classified information after leaving office and whether the former president obstructed government efforts to recover the material.
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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who will ultimately make the decision on whether to indict Mr Trump, has told associates that he will not overrule Mr Smith's decision, regardless of the outcome, unless he believes the special counsel has deviated from department standards and procedures.
Mr. Garland, and his chief deputy Lisa O. Monaco, have publicly projected a disengagement from the case, but they have followed developments in the privilege battle that has played out in the federal courthouse located just blocks from their offices. They have received regular briefings from the helpers who get updates from members of Mr.'s team. Smith, according to two people familiar with the situation.
The legal battle over privilege began long before Mr. Smith was appointed to the post of special advisor and has pitted the two powerful forces against each other.
In an investigation into Trump's attempts to overturn the election, federal prosecutors have called in an army of former Trump aides in an effort to get the grand jury to hear as many first-hand accounts as possible about his conduct in the White House. in the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Trump's attorneys countered by asserting that any adviser close to the former president should not have to answer certain questions before a grand jury because of attorney-client privilege, which protects communications between attorneys and those they represent, and executive privilege, which protects some communications. between the president and members of his administration.
Among the first to get involved in this debate were Marc Short and Greg Jacob, Mr. Pence, who entered the grand jury in July and asserted privileges in response to certain questions, pushed prosecutors to submit a motion compelling their full testimony. . Setting a pattern for the following months, Mr. Trump fought the motions but ultimately lost their case before Beryl A. Howell, then the chief federal judge in Washington, and then before a federal appeals court.
With that privilege revoked, Mr. Short and Mr. Jacob testified a second time in October. They were followed two months later by Pat A. Cipollone and Patrick F. Philbin, two of the top attorneys in the White House. Trump, who went through the same process.
The fight dragged on into the year as other rounds of helpers – including Mr. Miller; Dan Scavino, former deputy chief of staff; and Mr Scavino's boss Mark Meadows, Mr Trump's last chief of staff – all of whom tried, and failed, to assert a form of privilege. The latest skirmish occurred just weeks ago when the new presiding judge, James E. Boasberg, rejected efforts to limit Mr. Pence's testimony.
While getting these witnesses before a grand jury is challenging and time-consuming, the reports they have provided—or will eventually provide—only a small fraction of the total evidence Mr. Smith and his predecessors.
Long before Mr Smith arrived, another attorney, Thomas P. Windom, obtained grand jury testimony from pro-Trump figures such as Ali Alexander, who organized several high-profile “Stop the Steal” events, and from a large number of state officials involved in planning to creating fake lists of pro-Trump voters in failed states that President Biden actually won.
Mr Windom, who now works with Mr Smith, also oversaw the seizure of telephones from attorneys close to Mr Trump, including John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark and Boris Epshteyn. Mike Roman, a campaign strategist who was director of Election Day operations for Trump's 2020 campaign, also had his phone confiscated under Mr Windom's watch.
Another prosecutor now working with special counsel started an investigation before Mr. Smith arrives at Save America PAC, a fundraising operation created by Mr. Trump after his election loss. As part of that investigation, dozens of subpoenas have been issued against companies that received money from PAC, including several law firms.
Danny Hakim reporting contribution.