Former President Donald Trump speaks on May 28, 2022, in Casper, Wyoming. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)
A federal judge in Florida unsealed an indictment that accuses former President Donald Trump of hiding classified national security documents after he left the White House, improperly storing them and sharing sensitive information with people who lacked security clearance.
Though he’s not the only former federal official to improperly take classified documents with him after leaving office, federal prosecutors allege Trump did so on purpose and went to great lengths to conceal his possession of them.
It’s the second indictment this year for the former president, who is also facing state business records fraud charges in New York.
Trump is running for the Republican nomination for president.
News of the indictment, which Trump delivered himself on social media Thursday evening, sparked divided reactions among members of Congress and Trump’s fellow contenders for the GOP nomination.
Why was Trump indicted?
According to a 37-count indictment, Trump brought boxes of classified documents with him from Washington to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, when he left office.
When pressed by the National Archives and Records Administration — and, later, by the Florida federal grand jury — he did not return all the documents with classified material.
Many documents were marked top secret and contained highly sensitive information about U.S. and foreign military capabilities. Trump knew the materials were classified and went to great lengths to conceal his possession of them, even after the grand jury subpoenaed them, according to the indictment.
The FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and residence in South Florida in August 2022 and discovered classified material Trump had failed to turn over.
What did Trump say about the indictment?
In written statements and a video posted to his social media platform, Truth Social, on Thursday, Trump called himself “an innocent man” and painted himself as the victim of political attacks.
Trump also noted his successor, President Joe Biden, had also improperly stored classified material after Biden’s tenure as vice president.
What is the next step?
Trump said he will make an appearance at a federal courthouse in Miami on Tuesday.
That would be an arraignment, where the charges against him are formally presented and he enters a plea.
In the meantime, Trump has continued posting on Truth Social. He has not indicated any disruption to his schedule, which includes an appearance at the Georgia Republican Convention on Saturday.
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What has Biden said?
During a tour of Nash Community College in North Carolina on Friday, Biden was asked about the indictment. “I have no comment,” he said.
Speaking to reporters Friday, White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton declined to comment and deferred questions to the Justice Department, which she noted “runs its criminal investigations independently.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland added another layer between the prosecution and political figures by appointing special counsel Jack Smith to oversee the prosecution in November.
Pressed to respond to Republican criticisms that the prosecution was political, Dalton said Biden would not weigh in to avoid any perception of White House interference.
“That’s precisely why we’re not commenting here,” she said. Biden “believes in respecting the independence of the DOJ and protecting the integrity of their processes. And that’s, again, why we’ll leave it there.”
Trump, who lost to Biden in 2020, leads polls to win the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in next year’s election.
What has the special counsel said?
In a brief public appearance Friday, Smith said his office plans to “seek a speedy trial in this matter, consistent with the public interest and the rights of the accused.”
“Our laws that protect national defense information are critical to the safety and security of the United States, and they must be enforced,” Smith said. “Violations of those laws put our country at risk.”
Hasn’t Biden also had problems with documents?
Biden attorneys discovered classified documents dating from his tenure as vice president in the Obama administration in November at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a Washington think tank associated with the president. They alerted federal authorities, who searched Biden’s private home and discovered more classified documents on Dec. 20, Jan. 11 and Jan. 12.
Pence in January alerted the FBI about a “small number of documents” with classified markings that were found in his Indiana home.
Both Biden and Pence self-reported the improper possession of materials.
Wasn’t Trump already indicted?
Yes, in New York state court on felony charges he falsified business records by using campaign cash to pay hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump pleaded not guilty to the state charges.
Thursday’s indictment was related to separate activity and on federal charges. No other former president has been charged in a federal indictment.
He is also under investigation for election interference in Georgia.
And the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol made a criminal referral to the U.S. Justice Department to probe Trump’s role in instigating that riot.
What are other Republican presidential candidates saying?
At this point in the race, Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination are largely defining themselves in relation to the former president. Their reactions to the indictment reflected their position on Trump.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on Trump to drop out of the race.
Fellow Trump critic former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie voiced skepticism of Trump’s account and said he would wait for more facts to come out, but added that “no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were.”
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has said Trump inspired his entrance into politics and presents himself as a Trump ally, blasted the indictment as an example of selective prosecution.
“We can’t have two tiers of justice: one for Trump, another for Biden,” he said.
Trump’s strongest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, sounded a similar note.
“We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation,” he said, adding that as president he would “bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.
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How are Republicans in Congress reacting?
They’re mostly defending Trump, with House members more united in that effort.
“Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a Thursday post to Twitter. “It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him.”
McCarthy pledged to “stand with President Trump against this grave injustice.”
U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio tweeted, “Sad day for America. God Bless President Trump.”
“This sham indictment is the continuation of the endless political persecution of Donald Trump,” U.S. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana said.
“A sitting president arresting his political opponent is the ultimate weaponization of government,” Kentucky’s Thomas Massie said.
In the Senate, Republicans were quieter and one, Utah’s Mitt Romney, criticized Trump.
“Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents, but by refusing to simply return them when given numerous opportunities to do so,” Romney said in a statement.
The top two Senate Republicans, Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Whip John Thune of South Dakota, had not released statements by Friday afternoon. Thune has already endorsed South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott for president.
The Senate’s No. 3 Republican, Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, said the indictment “certainly looks like an unequal application of justice.”
What about Democrats?
Congressional Democrats have for years sought to prosecute Trump for various alleged misdeeds. Thursday and Friday, many implored Trump to be prosecuted without any regard for his former position.
“Today’s federal grand jury indictment tells us that former President Donald Trump put our national security in grave danger as he pursued yet another lawless personal agenda by pilfering and hoarding government documents,” House Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Jamie Raskin of Maryland said Thursday.
Trump “will have his day in court, in Miami and Manhattan and Atlanta too if it comes to it,” House Judiciary ranking Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York tweeted. “But I am grateful to live in a nation where no man is above the law.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted that Trump should be treated like any other defendant.
“Due process and rule of law are essential American virtues, upon which politics must never intrude,” he wrote. “This case will play out under established law and judicial supervision.
Will this affect Trump’s campaign?
We don’t know.
Conventional wisdom in pre-Trump American politics was that a criminal investigation would sink a candidate. And the indictment contains damning details alleging Trump jeopardized national security.
But Trump has routinely harnessed potentially damaging news stories to feed a narrative that media and government elites unfairly target him. He broke the news of the indictment himself and sent a fundraising email to supporters within hours.
Trump could hold the office of president even with a criminal record, National Public Radio has reported. The Constitution requires only that an individual be at least 35 years old, and a natural born citizen who has lived in the country for at least 14 years.
Senior Washington reporter Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
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