Opinion | What Jack Smith Knows

Donald Trump openly flatters foreign autocrats such as Vladimir V. Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in many ways Mr. Trump governed as authoritarians do around the globe: enriching himself, stoking ethnic hatreds, seeking personal control over the courts and the military, clinging to power at all costs. So it is especially fitting that he has been notified that he may soon be indicted on charges tied to alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election by an American prosecutor who is deeply versed in investigating the world’s worst tyrants and war criminals.

Jack Smith, the Justice Department special counsel — who has already indicted Mr. Trump on charges of illegally retaining secret documents and obstructing justice — has a formidable record as a career federal prosecutor in Tennessee, New York and Washington. Yet he also has distinctive expertise from two high-stakes tours of duty as an international war crimes prosecutor: first at the International Criminal Court and then at a special legal institution investigating war crimes in Kosovo. For several momentous years in The Hague, he oversaw investigations of foreign government officials and militia members who stood accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

There are two competing visions of national and international justice at play in Mr. Smith’s investigation of Mr. Trump. One is the lofty principle that even presidents and prime ministers must answer to the law. The other is the reality that such powerful leaders can try to secure their own impunity by decrying justice as a sham and rallying their followers, threatening instability and violent backlash. These tensions have defined the history of international war crimes prosecutions; they marked Mr. Smith’s achievements in court; they are already at play in Mr. Trump’s attempts to thwart the rule of law.

Start with the ideals. The United States championed two international military tribunals held at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, which put senior German and Japanese leaders on trial for aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Henry L. Stimson, the U.S. secretary of war, privately exhorted Franklin Delano Roosevelt that even Nazi war criminals should be given a “well-defined procedure” including “at least the rudimentary aspects of the Bill of Rights.”

Both the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials convicted senior leaders for atrocities committed while in government, treating their deeds not as acts of state but as personal crimes punishable by law. After the Cold War, these principles of legal punishment for the world’s worst criminals were revived with United Nations tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as special courts for East Timor, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

Mr. Smith hewed to the ideal of individual criminal responsibility as the prosecutor for the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which was created under U.S. and European pressure to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity from 1998 to 2000 related to Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Serbia. Although part of Kosovo’s legal system, the institution is headquartered in The Hague and staffed by international judges and personnel — which is how Mr. Smith, a U.S. citizen, wound up serving as its specialist prosecutor.

In June 2020, his office revealed that it was seeking to indict Hashim Thaci, then Kosovo’s popular president, who was on his way to the White House for a summit with Serbia convened by the Trump administration. Mr. Thaci, a former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla leader, returned home, later resigning as president and being detained in The Hague in order to face several counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in an ongoing trial that could last for years.

It is always difficult and risky to prosecute national leaders with some popularity among their people. Savvy dictators will often secure a promise of amnesty as the price for a transition of power, which is why a furtive impunity — such as that promulgated in Chile by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military government in 1978 — is more common than spectacular trials such as Nuremberg or Tokyo. In order to impose justice on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the Allies had to commit to a devastating policy of unconditional surrender, which meant that German and Japanese war criminals could not negotiate for their own necks. Even so, the Truman administration quietly undercut that pledge of unconditional surrender for Emperor Hirohito, fearing that the Japanese might fight on if he was prosecuted as a war criminal. The Truman administration left the emperor securely in the Imperial Palace while his prime ministers and generals were tried and convicted by an Allied international military tribunal in Tokyo.

At an earlier point in his career, from 2008 to 2010, Mr. Smith worked as the investigation coordinator in the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court, the permanent international war crimes tribunal based in The Hague. Although 123 countries from Afghanistan to Zambia have joined the I.C.C., the tribunal was a bugbear for the Trump administration; Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, vowed to let it “die on its own,” while his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reviled it as a “renegade, unlawful, so-called court.”

Anyone working at the I.C.C. must understand how constrained and weak the court actually is. In 2009 and 2010, the I.C.C. issued arrest warrants for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charging him with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Darfur region; he is still at large, even after being overthrown. When a prominent Kenyan politician, Uhuru Kenyatta, was charged with crimes against humanity after ethnic violence in the wake of his country’s 2007 presidential election, he decried the I.C.C. as a neocolonial violation of Kenya’s sovereignty. In 2013 he was narrowly elected president of Kenya. In 2014, the I.C.C. prosecutor dropped the charges against Mr. Kenyatta, fuming that Kenya’s government had obstructed evidence and intimidated witnesses.

From Kenya to Kosovo, Mr. Smith presumably knows all too well how an indicted politician can mobilize his loyalists to defy and obstruct a prosecution. When Mr. Thaci’s trial started in The Hague in April, some Kosovars rallied in support of a leader seen by them as a heroic guerrilla fighter against Serbian oppression. Mr. Smith’s office has complained that Mr. Thaci and other suspects were trying to obstruct and undercut the work of prosecutors, as well as convicting two backers of the Kosovo Liberation Army for disseminating files stolen from the office.

Mr. Trump is already instinctively following a similar playbook of bluster and intimidation — even though he is not facing an international tribunal, but the laws of the United States. He has compared the F.B.I. agents investigating him to the Gestapo and smeared Mr. Smith as “deranged,” while crudely warning an Iowa radio show that it would be “very dangerous” to jail him since he has “a tremendously passionate group of voters.”

Yet Mr. Trump will find that Mr. Smith has dealt with the likes of him — and worse — before. The American prosecutor is well equipped to pursue the vision of a predecessor Robert H. Jackson, the eloquent Supreme Court justice who served as the U.S. chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, who declared in his opening address there: “Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance.”

Gary J. Bass is the author of “The Blood Telegram” and the forthcoming “Judgment at Tokyo: World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia.”

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