WASHINGTON – Former President Donald Trump was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges related to the hundreds of classified documents seized from his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, an unprecedented step in the wide-ranging investigations that include his previous indictment in New York.
More than 300 classified documents were recovered more than a year after Trump left the White House, most under subpoena in June 2022 or during an FBI search in August 2022. Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith has been investigating the potential mishandling of national defense records.
Trump was indicted on seven charges, according to a person who has been briefed on the case.
Trump confirmed the indictment in a statement and protested his innocence in a post on Truth Social. He said that he was summoned to appear Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Miami at 3 p.m.
"The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been Indicted," Trump said in the statement, contrasting his treatment to the discovery of classified documents at President Joe Biden's former office and home. "I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!" Trump added.
Trump said that the "Biden Administration" had informed his attorneys "that I have been Indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax." He then complained about Biden's own possession of classified documents, which is the subject of another investigation.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined comment on Trump's announcement.
Timeline of documents case: Timeline: The journey of Trump’s classified documents
Legal experts have argued charges alleging the mishandling of classified documents could be the most straightforward case against Trump because the records were seized at Mar-a-Lago. But Trump has argued repeatedly that he could take records with him after leaving the White House, despite the Presidential Records Act giving ownership to the National Archives and Records Administration, and that he had declassified them, despite the lack of documentation for his assertion.
"I have the absolute right to do whatever I want with them," Trump said at a recent CNN town hall.
Allies, adversaries weigh in with opinions
A wave of Trump aides and allies took to social media, email, and television networks to condemn the indictment.
One of Trump's lawyers, Alina Habba, told Fox News that Trump would be "vindicated," and attacked the Justice Department for "selective prosecution" and "selective persecution.” She called the case “Russia third-world stuff."
Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for Make America Great Again Inc., said the case reflected a two-tiered justice system in America “that must be confronted and destroyed.”
"The Biden Regime, which is realizing they can’t beat or cheat their way to another victory, has taken the unprecedented step to indict President Trump,” Leavitt said. “This will be done when we re-elect President Donald J. Trump in 2024.”
Trump is currently in Bedminster, New Jersey. A person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly said Trump's lawyers were contacted by prosecutors shortly before he announced on his Truth Social platform that he had been indicted, according to The Associated Press.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called it “a dark day” for the country and threatened to fight the “weaponization" of the prosecution by the Biden administration.
“It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him,” McCarthy said in a tweet. “Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades. I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice. House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable.”
Others echoed the same sentiment.
"It's a sad day for America," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch defender of Trump during his impeachments and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Barb McQuade, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at the University of Michigan, said prosecutors probably picked Florida as a venue because the bulk of the alleged activity took place there. "If the charges include willful retention of classified or national defense documents, obstruction of justice, or unauthorized disclosure, then that activity likely occurred in Florida," she said.
Political rivals also began to weigh in. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is campaigning against Trump for the Republican nomination for president, called on Trump to end his campaign out of respect for the office. Hutchinson said Trump is entitled to a presumption of innocence, but that two indictments would be a major distraction.
“Donald Trump's actions – from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law – should not define our nation or the Republican Party,” Hutchinson said.
The top Democrat on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who led the second impeachment of Trump, said the indictment suggests Trump put national security at risk “by pilfering and hoarding government documents.”
“After reviewing a trove of factual evidence, the federal grand jury found probable cause to believe that former President Trump knowingly retained hundreds of presidential and classified records, deliberately defied subpoenas, obstructed law enforcement, and lied about his continuing retention of records,” Raskin said.
The documents and what they mean to the case
The documents at stake had labels suggesting they held some of the country's most closely guarded secrets about national defense and the identities of spies overseas. Federal officials have an audio recording from July 2021 of Trump discussing a classified Pentagon document about a possible attack on Iran, CNN reported, citing multiple unidentified sources.
Smith is also investigating potential election fraud from Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2022 election.
E. Jean Carroll won a $5 million civil verdict against Trump for sexual abuse and defamation over an encounter at a New York department store in the 1990s. Trump has appealed.
Trump faces 34 charges of falsifying business records in New York for hush payments to women who claimed to have had sex with him. He pleaded not guilty and the trial is set for March, when presidential primaries are scheduled.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating potential election fraud because of Trump’s fake electors in that state and because of his call Jan. 2, 2021, asking state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn the election results.
Here is what we know about the federal charges:
What laws were allegedly violated?
The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 was for evidence of violations of three federal statutes. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service described the three statutes under Chapter 18 of the criminal code:
The Espionage Act: Section 793 is part of the 1917 Espionage Act. The law covers more than spying, applying to information “relating to” or “connected with” national defense. The law doesn’t define what counts as national defense documents. But courts have interpreted the phrase to mean “relating to the military and naval establishments and the related activities of national preparedness,” according to the Supreme Court, and information whose disclosure is “potentially damaging” to the United States, according to lower courts.
Removing government records: Section 2071 This statute general prohibits willfully and unlawfully concealing, removing, mutilating, obliterating, or destroying a “record,” “paper,” or “document” that is “filed or deposited with any clerk or officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States.” A person convicted under this statute would be disqualified from holding public office. In a case involving Oliver North, a co-conspirator in the Iran-Contra scandal for altering National Security Council documents, a federal court rejected his argument that presidential records were exempt from the statute.
Obstruction of justice: Section 1519 criminalizes the destruction of evidence in obstruction of certain federal investigations or proceedings. Prosecutors have used it to charge activities undermining investigations such as hiding objects and shredding documents. Violations require four elements: the defendant knowingly altered, destroyed, mutilated, concealed, covered up, falsified, or made false entries; the government must show that the prohibited behavior was done to “any record, document, or tangible object” such as a computer hard drive; the defendant acted with the “intent to impede, obstruct, or influence;” and the government must demonstrate that the defendant sought to obstruct “the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.”
Trump has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, said he had the right to keep the documents and that he declassified them, although authorities found no documentation to support that claim.
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Legal experts suggested other charges are possible:
Removal and retention of classified documents: Section 1924 makes it a crime for an officer or employee of the United States to knowingly remove classified documents with the intent to retain them in an unauthorized location. Trump has acknowledged moving the documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago when he left office in January 2021. He has argued he declassified the records, although there is no documentation of that.
False statements: Section 1001 makes it a crime for someone to make a willfully false statement about a material fact to a federal investigator. Trump lawyer Christina Bobb signed a certification in June 2022 when served a subpoena that no more classified documents were at Mar-a-Lago. Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran helped draft the certification. More classified documents were found during the August search. Bobb and Corcoran were called as witnesses before the grand jury. The open question is whether prosecutors can prove Trump directed Bobb and Corcoran to mislead investigators.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump indicted for alleged mishandling classified documents: Recap