As he has pursued the unprecedented and complex case against former President Trump for attempting to overturn the 2020 election, Special Counsel Jack Smith has had help from a longtime colleague. Joseph “J.P.” Cooney is a veteran federal prosecutor with a deep distaste for corruption and a hard charging approach.
Cooney, court filings and former colleagues say, currently holds the title of “deputy special counsel” in Smith’s investigation. TPM contacted over a dozen sources to get a sense of Cooney’s life and work. Multiple sources described him as one of Smith’s longtime deputies who is playing a leading role on the Jan. 6 case.
A review of Cooney’s career as a prosecutor shows he has not shied away from pursuing prominent politicians. He has also helped score two convictions of members of Trump’s inner circle. Cooney’s college writings also show hints of his personal views including an early focus on corruption. His role on Smith’s team is notable not only for his close relationship with the special counsel, which was built over many years within the DOJ, but also because, before Smith’s November 2022 appointment, Cooney reportedly advocated for directly focusing on the role of Trump’s top advisers. It was an aggressive strategy that is in keeping with a reputation for willingness to take on high-level power players that Cooney has earned throughout his career.
Colleagues described Cooney as a diligent, dogged attorney whose fast-moving approach matches Smith’s own. However, amid what was largely praise for his work, one former co-worker said that, early in his career, Cooney may have been too aggressive for his own good. And, naturally, Cooney’s targets–including a U.S. senator whose’s prosecution ended in a mistrial–have also had their share of complaints.
Cooney’s world is not an easy one to penetrate. Due to the ongoing cases and fact many of his current and former associates have their own sensitive jobs in the legal profession, the vast majority of the sources who were willing to discuss his work requested anonymity. Multiple sources offered insights while refusing to be quoted directly. Cooney did not respond to a request for comment and a Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Smith’s investigation has been resistant to leaks and the DOJ has released little information beyond what is contained in court filings. Prior to Smith’s appointment, Cooney was reportedly overseeing an investigation into financial crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack. In his current role as Smith’s deputy, it is unclear precisely which aspects of the case Cooney is focused on or whether he is operating in a more general organizational capacity.
According to one former law school classmate, Cooney’s path to public service began with his upbringing in a “very Irish Catholic family.” Cooney’s father, Joseph Cooney, who passed away last year, didn’t just pass his name and a love of the New York Yankees onto his son. He also instilled in Cooney, who grew up in Northern Virginia’s D.C. suburbs, what the classmate described as a “sense of duty.”
The younger Cooney followed his father’s footsteps to Notre Dame University and to the legal profession. At Notre Dame in the late 1990’s, Cooney displayed both an interest in government and early ambition. Archives of the school newspaper show that Cooney was a writer and a political columnist. He wrote about his frustration with “classic Washington power-politics at work” and campaign finance “corruption.” While he criticized both parties, Cooney made his own allegiances clear in a 1997 column where he suggested the country needed a new “progressivism.”
“The American people lie in wait for an attractive and appealing political movement which they can grab hold of,” Cooney wrote. “The answer lies in a new Left.”
During college, Cooney tutored local children as part of a “neighborhood study help program.” He would later credit the experience with helping hone presentation schools he used at trial.
“When you go before a court you’re trying to teach the judge or the jury what they need to know,” Cooney said of his time teaching in a 2004 interview.
At Notre Dame, Cooney also was president of the College Democrats. While his youthful activism was clearly partisan, the school’s political environment in the late 1990’s seems far less hostile than the current climate. One undergraduate classmate said that Cooney’s Democratic club strove to make its events “bipartisan” and they often incorporated participation from their Republican counterparts.
Cooney went on to the University of Virginia Law School. His classmate there referred to him even then as “a lawman type” who did things by the book and was exceptionally well prepared. Cooney distinguished himself among his class by winning the school’s moot court competition.
“J.P. has been an upstanding straight shooter for as long as I’ve known him,” the classmate said. “J.P. is a very smart guy and a good litigator.”
While he was politically active in his youth, colleagues emphasized that Cooney displayed no partisanship in his professional career.
“There are certain people at Jones Day who wear their politics on their sleeve. J.P. was not one of them in my opinion,” said Edwin Fountain, Cooney’s hiring partner at the firm. “I think he was a person of great integrity and would do what he thought the job required and follow the facts of the case where they’d lead him.”
Fountain, who is currently the general counsel at the American Battle Monuments Commission, described Cooney as a “very smart guy” and noted he recommended Cooney for a clerkship with a federal judge in Virginia, Robert Doumar. Cooney spent time clerking with the judge, who is a Republican, prior to joining Jones Day.
“We thought very highly of him, he was a very hard worker,” Fountain said of Cooney, who he also called a “very squared away guy.”
After a short stint in the world of white collar law, Cooney joined the Justice Department where he initially focused on drug cases and other so-called “street crime.” He went on to join the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section where one former colleague of Cooney’s at the Justice Department described him as one of the hardest-working and boldest prosecutors he’d met, and recalled that Cooney earned Smith’s respect early on in his DOJ career. It was Smith who promoted Cooney early in his career to be a deputy chief of the U.S. DOJ’s Public Integrity Section.
The post is a prestigious one for a young attorney at DOJ and has launched the careers of notable prosecutors like former Attorney General Eric Holder.
A second former DOJ colleague who worked with them during this time said that Cooney shared Smith’s reputation for moving quickly on cases, a trait which Smith has demonstrated since being appointed as special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland last November. Since then, Smith has unveiled two indictments against Trump and his associates related to their handling of classified documents and the various schemes to reverse the former president’s election loss. The special counsel has moved especially fast on the Jan. 6 case, which Smith pressed to bring to a “speedy trial” in early 2024 citing “the public’s strong interest.”
Smith’s charges against Trump reflect that aggressive approach that both he and Cooney are known for among their colleagues. They also demonstrate a willingness to take on top political figures, which was something Cooney reportedly pressed for over the objection of other colleagues before Smith’s appointment.
Cooney’s apparent interest in taking on some of the higher ranking advisers who helped Trump attempt to reverse the election is in keeping with what one co-worker described as his penchant for prosecutorial boldness. The second former DOJ colleague described Cooney as fearless and said that, unlike many other prosecutors, he never shied away from pursuing big cases. According to that colleague, Cooney was regarded within the Justice Department as being both a good speaker in the courtroom and someone with solid knowledge of case law, two traits which don’t always go together.
Along with their compliments for Cooney, this former colleague did note that, earlier on in his career, that hard-charging approach sometimes led him to become overly attached to specific theories of the case. However, the colleague said Smith, who often made his prosecutors prepare detailed opening statements before they indicted a case, did a good job keeping this in check and challenged Cooney on his assumptions. The colleague also noted this tendency is one often seen among younger prosecutors and suggested it is likely something Cooney has outgrown. And, even in this prior phase of his career, the former colleague said Cooney was uniquely open to criticism and questioning as well as being adept at handling it.
During his time in the Public Integrity Section, one of the major cases Cooney worked on was a loss: the prosecution of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on multiple charges including conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud. That case ended in a mistrial in 2017 with one of the jurors telling reporters the jury did not feel that prosecutors had proved the gifts and benefits exchanged between Menendez and a friend, who was also charged, went beyond the bounds of a normal personal relationship.
Following the mistrial declaration, Menendez blasted the prosecution team.
“The way this case started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong, the way it was prosecuted was wrong, and the way it was tried was wrong as well,” Menendez said.
The following year, the judge dismissed seven of the 18 counts in the indictment. DOJ officials declined to retry the cases.
Despite that outcome, the two former DOJ colleagues praised Cooney’s decision to take the Menendez case on as brave. They argued that public corruption cases, particularly those brought in states where the target enjoys broad political support, are particularly difficult to win, and pointed out recent Supreme Court rulings have made victories even harder to come by.
At the Public Integrity Section of the D.C. U.S Attorney’s Office, Cooney went on to prosecute a pair of Trump’s top advisers: Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. Stone, who declined to comment to TPM, was convicted on multiple felony counts in 2019 related to his efforts to obstruct a congressional investigation into Trump’s campaign and ties to Russia. During Stone’s sentencing, then-Attorney General Bill Barr intervened in the case to ask for a lighter sentence. That extraordinary interference prompted resignations from the prosecution team and DOJ, though Cooney stayed on. Trump later commuted Stone’s sentence.
Bannon, who did not respond to a request for comment, was convicted in July 2022 of defying a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. He is currently appealing that conviction and has vowed to make the case the “misdemeanor from hell.” As part of their efforts to fight the charges, Bannon’s attorney, David Schoen has filed motions accusing the prosecution of “outrageous misconduct” in their attempts to obtain records of Bannon’s communications. Prosecutors have disputed that allegation. Schoen declined to comment since the matter is still being reviewed by the court.
Cooney’s decision to stay on through the Stone case meant that he remained chief of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section by the 2020 election. He used that position to take on Barr’s next high profile interference.
In late 2020, after Barr contorted longstanding DOJ elections policy to allow investigations into baseless allegations of voter fraud that Trump and his allies were pushing for to begin before the results were certified, Cooney spoke up. Cooney’s opposition to the move was revealed through emails released under the Freedom of Information Act. He leveraged his role to author a letter, backed by other prosecutors in his section, saying that the policy “lend[ed] the Department’s imprimatur to conspiracy theories and counterfactual balloting fraud allegations that risk permanent damage to the integrity of the election process, and the timing gives the unseemly appearance that the Department’s motives arise from political partisanship.”
Now, two and a half years later, Cooney is prosecuting the very election reversal scheme which he found himself opposing internally.
Trump has repeatedly taken to social media to attack Smith and other prosecutors investigating his conduct. However, Cooney’s battle with Barr prompted something of an endorsement attesting to his lack of partisanship from one of Trump’s own appointees. When Cooney sent the letter criticizing Barr, emails show Richard Donoghue, a Republican who was tapped to serve as acting attorney general during the Trump administration, characterized Cooney and the other signatories as “nonpartisan career prosecutors who are focused on integrity.”
While Cooney may have given up on his youthful partisanship, one trait from his younger days has clearly continued through his career. His former law school classmate described Cooney having an exceptional attention to detail, which echoed the view of multiple DOJ colleagues.
“He was absolutely a thorough, do the work kind of a guy. If someone spelled his name ‘JP’ without putting the periods after the ‘J’ and the ‘P,’ he would correct them,” the former law school classmate said of Cooney. “He does all the homework.”