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What is a target letter? What to know about the document Trump received from DOJ special counsel Jack Smith

What is a target letter?
What is a target letter like the one Trump received over Jan. 6 probe? 07:25

Former President Donald Trump said Tuesday he received a letter Sunday informing him that he is a target of Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into efforts to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power following the 2020 election.

A target letter is official correspondence that prosecutors send to people under investigation, CBS News legal contributor and Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson explained. It alerts the recipient that they are under investigation, and that the investigation is nearing the final stages.

"And usually, as this target letter apparently did, to say to the person 'you can come and testify before the grand jury," Levinson said.

Trump has received two such letters in the past, Levinson said. One was in the Manhattan district attorney's investigation into "hush money" payments, for which Trump was charged in April with 34 counts of allegedly falsifying business records. The other was in Smith's investigation into Trump's handling of classified documents, for which he was indicted last month. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases. 

Trump declined to testify before a grand jury in those instances, and Levinson suspects he won't testify before the grand jury in this case either. 

Regardless of whether Trump chooses to testify or not, the letter serves as an indication that an indictment is likely coming soon. Levinson said she believes it could be days or weeks before a federal indictment. Former federal prosecutor Richard Convertino told CBS Detroit he agreed an indictment was coming.

"Once a person is the target of a federal grand jury investigation, they will be indicted," Convertino said. "I can think of, in 20 years as a federal prosecutor, I can think of no cases where a target was not ultimately indicted."

Former federal prosecutor discusses DOJ sending target letter to former President Donald Trump 13:50

Trump disclosed the existence of the target letter on Truth Social, his social media platform. He said he got the letter about Smith's investigation on Sunday night and that he anticipates being indicted. Trump said he was given four days to report to the grand jury.

"This witch hunt is all about election interference and a complete and total political weaponization of law enforcement," he said in his post.

How does the Justice Department define a target letter?

The Justice Department defines a "target" as "a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant."

This differs from being the "subject" of an investigation — a person whose conduct is "within the scope of the grand jury's investigation." 

What was involved in the investigation by Jack Smith and the grand jury?

According to sources close to witnesses, Smith is building a sprawling case focused on Trump's actions in the aftermath of the election.

Several in Trump's inner circle have testified as part of Smith's probe, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, one-time national security adviser Robert O'Brien, top aide Stephen Miller and ally Steve Bannon.

Investigators interviewed Rudy Giuliani, Trump's former personal attorney, as part of their probe, a spokesperson for Giuliani confirmed in late June. Giuliani has not received a target letter, according to his attorney, Robert Costello.   

The special counsel's investigators also interviewed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Atlanta, according to a spokesperson for Raffensperger. A Jan. 2, 2021, phone call between Trump and Raffensperger has been a focus of ongoing state and federal investigations. In it, Trump was recorded as saying, "I just want to find 11,780 votes" — the number he'd need to overtake Joe Biden's lead in the state.

Levinson said she believes the special counsel has spoken with enough people and gotten enough information to proceed, even without testimony from Trump.

Trump receives target letter in Jan. 6 investigation 04:04

What might Trump be charged with?

The target letter highlights three federal statutes, according to a senior Trump source. Two of the statutes include potential charges of conspiracy to commit an offense or to defraud the U.S., and deprivation of rights under color of law. The third indicates potential charges ranging from obstruction of an official proceeding to tampering with a witness, victim or an informant. Hundreds of defendants in the Justice Department's probe into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack have faced the obstruction-related charge.

Could the case be resolved?

While a target letter usually tells a recipient to contact officials in order to resolve the case, that doesn't mean there's any kind of negotiation option, Convertino said. 

"It means that if you want to resolve the case, you can come in and we'll work out a guilty plea for you," he said.

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