Revisiting Trump special counsel Jack Smith’s failed prosecution of John Edwards

Jack Smith, the Department of Justice’s special counsel who indicted former president and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over his mishandling of classified documents, has connections to the Tar Heel State through his failed prosecution of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

Smith, as head of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, led efforts to indict Edwards with six felony charges, including four counts of accepting unlawful contributions during his failed 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, one count of making false statements on campaign finance documents, and one count of criminal conspiracy.

However, the 2012 trial ended after a North Carolina jury became deadlocked on nearly all charges and acquitted Edwards on one. The deadlock resulted in the declaration of a mistrial. Shortly after the mistrial ruling, Smith and DOJ decided not to proceed with their case against Edwards and dropped all charges.

As Smith continuously investigates and prepares to make his case against Trump in court next year, here is a recap of the Edwards scandal and Smith’s involvement.

Edwards scandal details

Smith’s prosecution of Edwards stemmed from the former senator’s efforts to prevent an extramarital affair he had from becoming public knowledge during his 2008 presidential primary campaign.

Edwards, North Carolina’s one-term Democratic senator, made a previous run for the Oval Office in 2004, finishing second behind eventual nominee John Kerry. Edwards then joined Kerry’s campaign as his running mate. The duo lost to then-incumbent George W. Bush in the general election.

Edwards entered the 2008 Democratic primaries as a top candidate, at one point seen as the early frontrunner. During this time, Edwards engaged in an affair with Rielle Hunter, a video producer for his campaign. The affair, which took place while Edwards’ wife Elizabeth was undergoing continued treatment for breast cancer, led to Edwards fathering a child with Hunter.

Allegations that Edwards and Hunter engaged in an affair were initially published in 2007 by the National Enquirer, a tabloid magazine. However, Edwards, during his campaign, publicly denied the allegations. Most mainstream media outlets avoided discussing the story seriously.

However, to hide the affair and his paternity of the child from continuing press speculation, it was alleged that Edwards ordered longtime aide Andrew Young, who was married, to claim paternity of Edwards’ child.

Furthermore, Hunter received money from donors associated with Edwards’ campaign to keep her out of the press’ view in the lead-up to the 2008 primaries.

Edwards dropped out of the race in late January 2008 after placing third in the Florida Democratic primary.

After renewed press speculation in the summer of 2008 regarding the affair, Edwards admitted that he had a relationship with Hunter as his wife battled against breast cancer. Edwards denied fatherhood of Hunter’s child. Edwards’ admission took him out of consideration for a second consecutive stint as the Democratic VP nominee.

Edwards would later admit to fathering the child in January 2010. Shortly after, his wife Elizabeth filed for divorce but succumbed to breast cancer in December of that year.

Edwards trial

DOJ, led by Smith’s Public Integrity Section, investigated Edwards’ use of campaign contributions to cover up the affair. In 2011, a grand jury indicted Edwards of campaign finance violations, conspiracy, and making false statements.

With the charges, Edwards faced a maximum of 30 years in prison and a fine of $1.5 million.

DOJ alleged that Edwards accepted over $900,000 in campaign contributions from two individuals intended to support Hunter and her child, violating the campaign finance limit of $2,300 laid out in the Federal Elections Act.

The two individual donors, Fred Baron and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, used their fortunes to financially support Hunter during Edwards’ campaign. Baron claimed shortly before his October 2008 death that his money went directly to Hunter and was not a campaign contribution. Mellon, who was in her late 90s, claimed she did not know her contributions supported Hunter.

However, during the 2012 trial, Smith and DOJ could not prove that Edwards “knowingly and willfully” accepted these illegal donations in a way that intended to influence the outcome of his campaign.

Despite blockbuster testimony against Edwards from his ex-aide Andrew Young, who initially took the fall for the affair, jurors were reportedly unconvinced that Edwards knowingly accepted the money.

After an acquittal on accepting contributions from Mellon and a deadlock on all other counts, the trial was declared a mistrial. DOJ announced its case would not continue, leading to criticism from legal analysts of Smith and the rest of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section over weak prosecutorial efforts.

At the time, Smith defended his team by stating despite the high-profile loss, they were “trying more cases than ever before in the section, and winning more than ever.”

Trial aftermath

Special Prosecutor Jack Smith. Source: Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office

While Edwards walked away from the trial with no jail time or fines, the scandal permanently bruised his reputation and ended his political career. As of 2023, he continues to practice law in North Carolina as a founding partner of the Raleigh-based Edwards Kirby firm.

Despite losing the case, Smith’s career only went further. Smith continued as head of the Public Integrity Section, where he successfully prosecuted former GOP Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2015 on charges of accepting illegal gifts. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned McDonnell’s conviction in 2016. DOJ decided not to continue pursuing charges.

In 2015, Smith became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Tennessee. In 2018, Smith became chief prosecutor of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, investigating war crimes committed during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.

In November 2022, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith as DOJ’s special counsel investigating former President Donald Trump. A grand jury indicted Trump in June 2023 on 37 felony counts over Trump’s handling of classified material following his presidency.

Trump’s federal trial is formally expected to begin on May 20, 2024, less than six months before when Trump may face President Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 presidential election.

The post Revisiting Trump special counsel Jack Smith’s failed prosecution of John Edwards first appeared on Carolina Journal.


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