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Former President Donald Trump disembarks his plane at Aberdeen Airport on May 1, 2023 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Credit - Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump has been indicted on federal charges for his handling of classified documents and told to appear in federal court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon, he said on his Truth Social account Thursday night. ABC News broke into regular TV programming shortly after 7 p.m. to report that a grand jury in Florida had voted to indict Trump on multiple federal charges.
It is the first time a former president has faced federal charges. In a separate case, Trump is facing local charges in a Manhattan court for hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels made during his 2016 campaign. Trump has been told he is facing seven charges in the federal case, according to a source in contact with him. The exact charges were unclear.
Trump, who is running for another term as president and remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, wrote on his social media site at 7:21 pm on Thursday that he has been summoned to appear at the federal courthouse in Miami on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
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“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been Indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!”
Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as a special counsel in November to oversee the investigation into whether Trump broke the law by taking sensitive national-security documents when he moved out of the White House in January 2020, or obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve them.
The FBI obtained a search warrant in August to enter Mar-a-Lago and found more than 100 classified documents. The discovery came after Trump’s advisors had said they had already conducted a “diligent search” of the property and turned over “any and all” papers marked classified. Federal officials had been negotiating with Trump for more than a year by then over the return of government documents he had taken with him to his Mar-a-Lago Club.
The federal indictment is the latest addition to Trump’s mounting legal troubles. Smith is also overseeing a separate investigation into Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election results and encourage a violent mob of supporters to enter the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021, to interrupt the certification of the election results.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is moving forward with a case looking at Trump’s effort to reverse his 2020 loss in Georgia by encouraging state election officials to “find” votes. New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Trump in November, alleging he fraudulently overvalued his properties to insurers and bank lenders. And in Manhattan court, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, has charged Trump with 34 felony counts of falsification of business records that Bragg says were designed to hide payments intended to keep quiet his alleged affair with Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 election. Trump has called all of the investigations against him hoaxes designed to hurt him politically.
Trump has made claims that he is the victim of a politically-motivated conspiracy to keep him from returning to office an animating force of his political movement. Both while in office and in the years afterward, he used two impeachments and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s effort to help Trump win the 2016 election to energize his supporters. The top of his social media feed on Truth Social reads: “THEY’RE NOT COMING AFTER ME, THEY’RE COMING AFTER YOU—I’M JUST STANDING IN THEIR WAY!” When he was indicted in Manhattan in April, Trump raised more than $1 million in campaign funds off the news.
Within minutes of the news breaking Thursday evening, Trump’s campaign was fundraising off his latest indictment. “This is nothing but a disgusting act of Election Interference by the ruling party to ELIMINATE its opposition and amass total control over our country,” read one campaign email with the subject line “BREAKING: INDICTED” and paid for by Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee.
Trump’s allies were quick to defend the former President, and claim that the federal indictment was a play by President Joe Biden to torpedo Trump’s campaign. Earlier Thursday, Biden was asked at a press conference how he can restore Americans’ trust in the Department of Justice with Trump attacking it. “Because you’ll notice, I’ve never once, not one single time, suggested to the Justice Department what they should do or not do relative to bringing a charge or not bring a charge. I’m honest.” Biden tapped the podium twice for emphasis and walked out.
A trial date for the Manhattan case has been set for March 2024, right in the middle of the presidential campaign season. That means that Trump, who announced his intention to take back the White House in November, will be campaigning across the country while defending himself in court against two ongoing criminal cases.
Some legal experts have argued Trump is particularly vulnerable to prosecution in the documents case. “I think this one is the most damaging because not only is there so much evidence, but it goes directly to the heart of his ability to be the leader of our country,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, recently told TIME. “It’s truly a complete undermining of his job if he really took government documents that don’t belong to him, if he showed people government documents that could have put our country at risk, and if he obstructed justice by not complying with a subpoena.”
Even if Trump is convicted by the special counsel, the charges against him won’t disqualify him from the presidency, according to legal experts. Under the Constitution, all natural-born citizens who are at least 35 years old and have been a resident of the U.S. for 14 years can run for president. There is no legal impediment to Trump continuing his presidential campaign while facing criminal charges—even if he were jailed.
“Indictment is absolutely no legal bar to him running,” says Levinson. “And a conviction is not a legal bar to him serving.”
At least two candidates with criminal convictions have run for president in the past, albeit unsuccessfully. In 1920 a candidate named Eugene Debs ran for president while in a federal prison in Atlanta as the nominee of the Socialist Party. Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act over an anti-war speech, and won more than 3% of the vote nationally. Lyndon LaRouche ran for president in every election between 1976 and 2004. LaRouche, a fringe candidate who embraced conspiracy theories, was convicted of tax and mail fraud in 1988 and ran his 1992 campaign from prison.
But the legalities become murkier if Trump were to win the presidency while facing impending charges or a conviction. Mishandling of classified government materials is a felony crime punishable up to 10 years in prison. Obstruction of justice is also a felony crime, with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
The general view among constitutional scholars is that the need for a duly elected president to fulfill the duties of their office would take precedence over a criminal conviction and require the prison sentence to at least be put on hold. Trump could even try to pardon himself immediately upon taking office. Trump is scheduled to appear at the Georgia Republican Convention in Columbus on Saturday. He is expected to still attend.
-With reporting from Eric Cortellessa and Nik Popli