By Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he had received a letter from Special Counsel Jack Smith stating that he is a target of a grand jury investigation into efforts to overturn his 2020 presidential election defeat.
A letter would represent the clearest sign to date that Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, may face federal criminal charges around his efforts to remain in power after losing the election to Joe Biden.
Officials have testified that during his final months in office, Trump pressured them with false claims of widespread voter fraud. His supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in a Jan. 6, 2021, bid to stop Congress from certifying Biden's win.
Smith "sent a letter (again, it was Sunday night!) stating that I am a TARGET of the January 6th Grand Jury investigation," Trump wrote on his Truth Social media site.
His attorneys could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Smith's office declined to comment.
It was one of a series of developments in the various criminal investigations into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his election defeat.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Tuesday announced criminal charges against 16 Trump supporters who allegedly submitted a phony slate of electors in an effort to overturn his 2020 defeat in that state. A prosecutor in Georgia is investigating a similar effort in that state.
Trump's legal woes have so far failed to dent his efforts to win the 2024 Republican nomination. His lead in opinion polls has widened in recent months, with his unsubstantiated allegations that partisan bias was behind the investigations helping to shore up support among his base, and his Republican rivals largely joining his criticism of prosecutors.
At a town hall in Iowa with Fox News on Tuesday, Trump took personal shots at Smith while claiming, without evidence, that prosecutors were out to help Biden.
"This guy is a deranged prosecutor," Trump said, referring to Smith. "He's a nasty, horrible human being."
'YOU'RE GOING TO GET INDICTED'
Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor, said a person who receives a target letter should "presume that you're going to get indicted, unless you give us a damn good reason why we shouldn't."
Smith has already brought criminal charges against Trump in a separate federal case alleging he unlawfully retained national security documents after leaving office in 2021 and conspired to obstruct efforts to retrieve them. Trump has pleaded not guilty.
According to a court filing, Smith sent a target letter to Trump's lawyers in that case on May 19, roughly three weeks before he filed charges.
Trump's lawyers on Tuesday asked U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who is presiding over that case, to consider the timing of his presidential campaign when deciding when the trial should take place. Cannon appeared skeptical of prosecutors' request for a December start, but also did not seem inclined to grant Trump's request for an indefinite delay.
As part of the 2020 election investigation, a grand jury at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., has heard testimony from high-profile former Trump administration officials, including Mike Pence, who served as Trump's vice president.
In his Truth Social post, Trump said Smith's office had given him "a very short 4 days" to appear before the grand jury in the probe.
In federal investigations, targets are sometimes provided an opportunity to testify before a grand jury if they have not already done so before prosecutors seek an indictment.
In the Jan. 6, 2021, rampage at the Capitol, Trump's supporters attacked police and forced lawmakers who were in the process of certifying the results of the 2020 election to flee for their lives.
The attack came shortly after Trump told supporters in an incendiary speech near the White House to march on the Capitol and "fight like hell" to "stop the steal" of the election.
More than 1,000 people have been charged with crimes connected with the riot, including some who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump's nearest rival for the Republican nomination, criticized the investigation as politically motivated and said Trump should not be charged.
"We’ve gone down the road in this country of trying to criminalize differences in politics," he said on CNN on Tuesday.
Trump is the first former president to be indicted.
In addition to the charges in the classified documents case, Trump faces New York state criminal charges accusing him of falsifying business records concerning a payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence before the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she has confirmed but he denies.
He has pleaded not guilty in that case as well.
On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a bid by Trump to block a state investigation into whether he and his allies illegally attempted to meddle with Georgia's 2020 election.
Republican strategist Matt Dole said any indictment would likely help Trump with fundraising but could deter some moderate Republicans and hinder his chances in the general election.
"I do think that it gives soft Trump supporters pause and reason to look elsewhere for a candidate with Trump's populism, but less of the circus - someone like Ron DeSantis," Dole said.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson, Moira Warburton, Andy Sullivan, Rami Ayyub and Nathan Layne; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller, Daniel Wallis and Jamie Freed)