Federal prosecutors in the United States have unsealed a sweeping indictment against former President Donald Trump that alleges he hoarded and concealed classified documents containing sensitive national security information.
The 49-page document laid out 37 federal charges against Trump. Thirty-one of the charges relate to violations under the Espionage Act, which criminalises unauthorised possession of national defence information. Each charge under the act carries a ten-year maximum sentence.
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Five other charges pertain to Trump’s alleged scheme to hide the documents as federal authorities launched an investigation. One more accuses the ex-president of making false statements to investigators.
Trump’s aide, Waltine “Walt” Nauta, was also charged with six felonies related to hiding documents and making false statements.
“Our laws that protect National Defense Information are critical to the safety and security of the United States and they must be enforced,” said Special Counsel Jack Smith, whom the US justice department appointed to oversee the investigation in November.
“Violations of those laws put our country at risk,” he continued, issuing remarks at a brief, three-minute news conference on Friday. “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
For his part, Trump maintained that he had done nothing wrong. He also attacked prosecutor Smith as a “deranged lunatic”, saying he provided investigators with the materials they asked for.
“I supplied them openly, and without question, security tape from Mar-a-Lago. I had nothing to hide, nor do I now,” the former president wrote on his Truth Social site.
“Nobody said I wasn’t allowed to look at the personal records that I brought with me from the White House. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Trump added.
Indictment sets high stakes
But the indictment unsealed by Department of Justice prosecutors told a very different story.
It alleged that Trump kept boxes that “included information regarding defence and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programmes; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to foreign attack”.
The indictment also indicated that the contents of those boxes, if released, could have had devastating consequences.
“The unauthorised disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military, and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods,” it said.
The prosecutors explained that the documents were haphazardly stored across Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, including in unsecured locations like a bathroom, ballroom and a shower.
One photo released by prosecutors showed documents spilled onto the floor of a storage room that could be “reached from multiple outside entrances, including one accessible from The Mar-a-Lago Club pool patio through a doorway that was often kept open”.
The documents include some with classified markings signalling that they were only to be released to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which consists of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.
Alleged attempts to conceal
As federal investigators ratcheted up their probe into the classified documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago, the former president weighed not complying with the order or outright lying, according to the indictment.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” Trump allegedly said, as recounted to federal investigators by one of his lawyers. “Well look, isn’t it better if there are no documents?”
That exchange came in the wake of a May 2022 subpoena, requiring that Trump turn over any classified documents in his possession.
The indictment further accuses Trump of “causing” his lawyers to falsely certify that Mar-a-Lago had been thoroughly searched and all documents had been located, in accordance with the subpoena.
Furthermore, prosecutors allege, Trump instructed his aide Nauta to move 64 boxes to “conceal them from Trump’s attorney, the FBI and the grand jury”. On Friday, Trump defended Nauta, calling him “strong, brave, and a great patriot”.
Documents revealed to visitors
Prosecutors have also said that Trump took a flippant approach to the classified documents when they were in his possession.
In one instance, Trump allegedly moved some records to his resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. There, he showed “a classified map related to a military operation” to a person who worked for his political action committee, according to the indictment.
He told the visitor that “he should not be showing it to the representative and that the representative should not get too close”, the indictment said.
In another instance, an audio recording revealed Trump displayed a “highly confidential” military document to a visiting writer and publisher, the indictment said.
“As president, I could have declassified it, and now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret,” Trump allegedly said. US media has previously reported on the interaction.
Trump’s statement in that instance, however, could prove particularly damning, as the ex-president has maintained he declassified all the documents before leaving office. He has not provided proof, however, that he took action to lower their classification status.
A years-long saga
The unsealed indictment represents the culmination of a years-long saga that began in May 2021, when the National Archives — which maintains presidential documents — demanded that missing records be returned.
Trump’s team turned in 15 boxes by January 2022, with 14 containing classified documents. The National Archives later reported that some of those had been returned ripped apart.
By May 2022, the justice department had issued its subpoena requiring any remaining documents to be surrendered. Ultimately, suspecting further documents remained at Mar-a-Lago, the FBI raided the resort in August, recovering 102 classified records.
Now, the case heads to federal court, where a Trump appointee, Judge Aileen Cannon, has reportedly been tapped to initially oversee the proceedings. She was thrust into the spotlight last year when she issued a decision to appoint a “special master” in the classified documents probe.
Cannon also briefly barred federal agents and prosecutors from reviewing a batch of seized documents, an order that was ultimately thrown out in a scathing opinion by a federal appeals court.
Trump is set to appear in federal court in Miami on Tuesday, where the secret service was already planning logistics.
Impact on the 2024 race
Trump’s allies and even Republican presidential opponents quickly seized on the revelations in Friday’s indictment, which the former president has called a “witch hunt”.
He has also framed the federal charges as an effort to subvert his candidacy in the 2024 presidential race. Trump is currently polling far ahead of the crowded Republican field.
But many prominent Republicans have stood behind the former president. His top Republican competitor in the 2024 race, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, decried the “weaponisation of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society”.
Top Democrats, meanwhile, rallied around the phrase, “No one is above the law.”
“This indictment must now play out through the legal process, without any outside political or ideological interference,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a joint statement.
On Friday, Trump abruptly parted ways with his lawyers, James Trusty and John Rowley, and appointed Todd Blanche — a former federal prosecutor — to lead his defence.
Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher noted that Trusty had been a “vociferous defender” of Trump and was advocating for him on television networks hours before the announcement.