Former president Donald Trump’s legal team fired off a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday asking for a meeting to discuss what they call the “unfair” treatment of their client by special counsel Jack Smith.
As a legal tactic, it is unorthodox to seek a direct meeting with the attorney general to discuss investigations that have been handed to a special counsel to ensure quasi-independent management of politically sensitive matters.
Garland tapped Smith, a career prosecutor, in November, days after Trump launched his third consecutive bid for the White House. Smith is overseeing two distinct categories of Trump-related investigations: the first into how hundreds of classified documents were taken to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private club and residence in southern Florida and the second into issues related to efforts to prevent Joe Biden from being certified as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Tuesday’s letter, signed by Trump attorneys John Rowley and James Trusty and labeled “via courier,” repeats a longtime mantra of Trump – that the Justice Department, even when he was the president, has been biased against him. A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment on the letter, which Trump made public by posting it on social media Tuesday night.
“Unlike President Biden, his son Hunter, and the Biden family, President Trump is being treated unfairly,” the letter says. “No President of the United States has ever, in the history of our country, been baselessly investigated in such an outrageous and unlawful fashion. We request a meeting at your earliest convenience to discuss the ongoing injustice that is being perpetrated by your Special Counsel and his prosecutors.”
The letter does not specify what those alleged injustices are or even say which part or parts of the special counsel’s work they object to. But it was sent as grand jury activity in the classified documents case has slowed in recent weeks and amid speculation by some Trump advisers and outside observers that Smith may be getting closer to making a decision on whether to pursue charges in that case.
Trump is simultaneously under indictment in New York in a separate matter – a state-level investigation into falsification of business records in connection with hush money payments in 2016. He appeared via video link for a hearing in that case Tuesday, shaking his head as a judge scheduled a trial for March of next year. The former president is also a focus of an investigation in Fulton County, Ga., into efforts to overturn that state’s 2020 election results.
It is not unusual for lawyers for high-profile defendants to seek an audience with senior Justice Department officials toward the end of a federal criminal investigation. Lawyers for Hunter Biden, who has been under investigation for years for possible tax violations and a false statement related to a gun purchase, met at the Justice Department a month ago to discuss that case and try to persuade the U.S. attorney in Delaware, David Weiss, not to pursue criminal charges.
Such a meeting, however, is quite different from Trump’s approach. For one thing, those meetings are generally negotiated in private, not publicly demanded. Also, it is uncommon for such meetings to take place with the attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Instead, they would usually be held with the chief of whichever Justice Department division is handling an investigation and potential prosecution, or sometimes the deputy attorney general. And in Trump’s case, a meeting with the attorney general would be even more unusual and problematic because the special counsel appointment envisions Smith acting with greater autonomy than other prosecutors in the Justice Department. Under department regulations, the attorney general may overrule the special counsel only if the special counsel has failed to follow Justice Department policies and practices.
Anthony Coley, a former spokesman for the attorney general, said the proposed meeting was unlikely. Justice Department regulations, Coley tweeted, “are explicitly clear on the process here. Jack Smith is running this investigation, not Garland.”
Smith, Coley noted, “is not subject to the day to day oversight of any person” at the Justice Department, including Garland.
The general thrust of Tuesday night’s missive echoes a much longer letter sent by Trump’s lawyers last month to members of Congress. In that 10-page letter – the most detailed public defense of the former president’s conduct – Trump’s legal team argued that the Justice Department should be ordered to “stand down” on the classified documents probe.
Federal prosecutors have been gathering evidence in that investigation to determine whether Trump or those close to him mishandled classified documents or obstructed government efforts to retrieve them. The grand jury has heard testimony from dozens of witnesses in recent months, including Trump’s own lawyer Evan Corcoran.
A key focus of the investigation has been Trump’s conduct after he received a subpoena in May of last year demanding the return of all classified documents in his possession. In response to the subpoena, Trump lawyers turned over about three dozen documents marked classified. But an FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago in August found more than 100 others, including in the former president’s office.
The Trump team argued in the letter to Congress that White House practices for handling classified information, across multiple administrations, differ so much from how other parts of the government handle national secrets that the Mar-a-Lago case should be handled as a civil matter, not a criminal one. The lawyers note that classified documents have also been found at the homes of President Biden and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence.
The Justice Department, Trump’s lawyers wrote in their letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), “should be ordered to stand down, and the intelligence community should instead conduct an appropriate investigation and provide a full report to this Committee, as well as your counterparts in the Senate.”
It would be highly unusual for the legislative branch of government to order a particular outcome in a criminal case, yet that appears to be precisely what Trump’s advisers were seeking. Arguing that the investigation is politically motivated against a 2024 presidential candidate, Trump’s attorneys urge politicians to intervene and end it.
“We have seen absolutely no indication that President Trump knowingly possessed any of the marked documents or willfully broke any laws,” the Trump lawyers wrote.