Revelations that special counsel Jack Smith has been digging into efforts to overturn former President Donald Trump’s Arizona election loss in 2020 bolster growing indications that his investigation is nearing a critical point.
New CNN reporting on Thursday also suggests that Smith remains interested in a chaotic Oval Office meeting days before Trump left office during which the former president considered some of the wildest schemes dreamed up to try to keep him in power, despite pushback from his White House counsel.
Smith has already made Trump the first former president to be formally accused of federal crimes. Trump was charged last month with the willful retention of national defense information and over alleged obstruction of the investigation in connection with a trove of classified documents he kept at his Florida home after leaving office.
But a flurry of details about Smith’s inquiries into alleged election-stealing efforts suggest his investigators have had an industrious summer. On Wednesday evening, for instance, Rusty Bowers – the Republican former Arizona House speaker who once said it was “foreign to my very being” to submit to Trump’s bid to subvert the Constitution – said publicly for the first time on CNN that he had spoken to the FBI.
In another sign of the breadth of the investigation, CNN reported on Thursday that Smith has subpoenaed the Arizona Secretary of State’s office in connection with the effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in the crucial swing state. Smith’s prosecutors have also turned their attention to Georgia, where Trump asked GOP officials to help find votes to reverse another critical Biden win. In June, CNN reported that Smith had compelled at least two fake electors – who were part of a potential scheme to block the decertification of Biden’s 2020 victory – to testify to a federal grand jury in Washington in return for limited immunity. Multiple sources told CNN last month that Trump’s former attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has also been interviewed by federal investigators as some grand jury testimony focuses on the actions of top lawyers around the former president.
A widening probe
The growing list of moves by Smith and his prosecutors may be just the tip of an investigation of considerable scope. Smith has so far not charged anyone in this probe and has given no indication of what kinds of potential criminal violations might be under consideration. But sources have indicated to CNN that Smith may be moving closer to charging decisions. It is not clear if any such action would involve Trump or would be concentrated on underlings who sought to help him stay in power.
The special counsel’s widening net of investigation would be a grave matter in any circumstances since it involves a former president and his entourage and an unprecedented effort to defy the will of voters. But the fact that it could implicate the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination makes it even more sensitive and appears to strengthen the possibility of a political collision in the run-up to the general election, if Trump is the nominee. He’s already anchoring his campaign to the premise that he is being politically persecuted by the administration that succeeded him and that he hopes to succeed.
Trump, who has not been charged in this case, would enjoy the same presumption of innocence as any other defendant. He has already pleaded not guilty in two other criminal cases – one over the alleged mishandling of classified documents, which was also led by Smith, and the other on business fraud charges in Manhattan related to a hush money scheme. It’s yet to be seen how those cases against him will fare in courtroom environments characterized by a high burden of proof.
It does not necessarily follow, however, that his extraordinary legal plight will translate into a political catastrophe. That’s because yet more possible indictments against him could further endear him to the GOP base, which has bought into his narrative that federal justice institutions are corrupt. And even if the specter of alleged illegal behavior seems likely to worsen his already compromised standing with moderate and swing voters in battleground states, it’s too soon to assess any general election scenario with GOP nominating contests still six months away.
Given this electoral context, however, further potential criminal charges against Trump or those in his orbit would be certain to deepen a national estrangement over his legacy and his new campaign. Yet at the same time, any failure to pursue Trump or those around him could, if the evidence is incriminating, wound US democracy and create a dangerous precedent for future defeated presidents to try to cling to power against the will of the electorate. Scores of Trump supporters who invaded the US Capitol after his incitement on January 6, 2021, have already been charged and successfully prosecuted. So any investigation that directly touches Trump’s inner circle might also mitigate perceptions that justice meted out in the aftermath of such a direct attack on US democracy has only tagged the foot soldiers.
The former president has denied wrongdoing in all cases. He’s insisted that all evidence in the public about his pressure on local election officials – for example tapes and transcripts of his calls to GOP officials in Georgia – show he behaved perfectly. But he is also waiting to find out whether he will be indicted in a local probe in Georgia over his alleged attempt to thwart Biden’s victory in the state. Any charging decisions in that investigation are expected by the end of the summer.
Arizona coming into focus
The breadth of the special counsel’s investigation became clearer with a surprising twist to Bowers’ interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. The former Arizona Republican official, who appeared before the House January 6 committee during the last Congress, said Wednesday he had been interview by the FBI for four hours a few months ago. Bowers, who lost a primary bid for state Senate last year, had not previously disclosed his encounter with the bureau. He said he talked about a call that he had with Trump and Giuliani after the election, and a second call just from Trump.
Smith’s May subpoena to the Arizona secretary of state’s office, which was first reported by the Arizona Republic earlier this week, also reflects the interest in the longtime GOP state, which Biden flipped in 2020. Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday that the subpoena concerned “frivolous lawsuits” filed by the Trump campaign against Arizona’s 2020 election as part of what he called a “feeble and misguided attempt” to overturn the national result.
Smith’s investigators have recently been looking into efforts to create alternative slates of electors in seven states Trump lost in 2020. CNN previously reported investigators secured evidence and testimony from fake electors in Nevada. Prosecutors were also set to talk to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, CNN reported in June. Trump had called the Republican official in January 2021 to press him to “find” votes needed to overturn Biden’s 12,000 vote victory in the state.
Impressions that Smith’s investigation is accelerating – especially now that the classified documents matter has been charged – are being fueled by the continued questioning of witnesses about that disorderly meeting in the Oval Office in the final days of the Trump administration. Multiple sources told CNN that investigators have asked several witnesses about the meeting, some months ago but others more recently, including Giuliani. The former New York mayor’s lawyer, Robert Costello, declined to comment. Prosecutors have specifically inquired about three outside advisers to Trump who were in the meeting: former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, multiple sources added.
It’s impossible to make judgments about the probe in which neither Trump nor those around him have been charged – or predictions about where it’s headed. But the recent revelations about the special counsel’s work at the very least suggest a vast field on inquiry. And they will leave open the possibility that the former and possibly future president, who is already in a heap of legal jeopardy, may soon face even more problems.