The US Justice Department on Friday named an independent prosecutor to oversee criminal investigations into Donald Trump, three days after the former president announced a new White House run in 2024. Trump called the appointment "political" and "unfair".
The move sets up the prospect of a drawn-out legal battle, with Trump likely to claim he is being targeted by the administration of Joe Biden to prevent him winning back the presidency.
At a press conference in Washington, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of Jack Smith, until recently a chief prosecutor in The Hague charged with investigating Kosovo war crimes.
Garland said naming a special counsel was in the public interest, because both the Republican Trump and his Democratic successor Biden have stated their intention to run in 2024 - although only Trump has officially declared at this point.
"Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election and the sitting president's stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel," Garland said.
Trump is being investigated over a cache of government documents uncovered in an FBI raid on his south Florida home and his involvement in the 2021 assault on the US Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The special counsel will determine whether the former president - who says he is a victim of political persecution - should face charges in connection with either investigation.
Trump's entry into the White House race on Tuesday makes indicting him a much more delicate matter.
The appointment of a special counsel to oversee the investigation could serve to help insulate Garland, a Biden appointee, from charges that the probe is politically motivated.
The special counsel would still report to the attorney general, who would have the ultimate say on whether charges should be brought.
Even if charged, Trump can still run for president - nothing in US law bars a person charged with or convicted of a crime from doing so.
While in office, Trump was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller over obstruction of justice and possible election collusion with Russia but no charges were brought against him.
Trump called the appointment "political" and "unfair" in an exclusive interview with Fox News.
"I have been proven innocent for six years on everything - from fake impeachments to [former special counsel Robert] Mueller who found no collusion, and now I have to do it more?" Trump said. "It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political," Trump told Fox.
Trump's unusually early announcement that he was running for president again in 2024 was seen by some analysts in Washington as an attempt to stave off potential criminal charges.
The 76-year-old Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives in 2019 for seeking political dirt on Biden from Ukraine and again after the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by his supporters but acquitted by the Senate.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)