Trump says he faces indictment in classified document case

The former US president has asserted on his Truth Social platform that he is being summoned to appear in federal court.

Former United States President Donald Trump has alleged on his Truth Social platform that he faces indictment on federal charges that he mishandled classified documents upon exiting the White House.

“I have been summoned to appear at the Federal Courthouse in Miami on Tuesday,” Trump wrote in the post. “I never thought it possible that such a thing could happen to a former President of the United States.”

The sealed indictment would represent yet another “first” for the scandal-ridden Republican: Never before has a US president, current or former, faced federal charges.

In April, Trump became the first US president to be criminally indicted, after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced 34 state-level felony charges of falsifying business records in a case pertaining to a hush-money payment to an adult film actress.

“I’m an innocent man,” Trump maintained in a video posted shortly after the announcement on Thursday. “I did nothing wrong.”

A close-up of a document that reads "top secret" in all capital letters.
A justice department court filing, dated August 2022, speaks to the classified information recovered from Donald Trump’s residence [File: Jon Elswick/AP Photo]

A months-long probe

Thursday’s announcement came as part of an ongoing US justice department investigation, led by Special Counsel Jack Smith, into the boxes of classified documents recovered at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

News agencies, including the Associated Press and Reuters, have reported that the ex-president faces seven counts related to the investigation. The specific charges will become public once the indictment is unsealed.

“Our country is going to hell. And they come after Donald Trump, weaponising the justice department, weaponising the FBI,” Trump said in the video, claiming the indictment is intended to derail his 2024 candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. “It’s called election interference. They’re trying to destroy a reputation so they can win an election.”

In the wake of an August search of Mar-a-Lago, several other high-profile politicians — including current US President Joe Biden and Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence — stepped forward as well to turn over classified documents held at their residences.

But many experts have indicated that Trump’s case is different. Initially, a year after Trump left office, in January 2022, the National Archives collected 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago, some of which contained classified information.

There were still more records there, though. The FBI had to issue a subpoena in May of that year for classified documents that remained in the former president’s possession.

And when FBI investigators came to believe there were even more documents at Mar-a-Lago — despite a signed statement from Trump’s legal team alleging otherwise — a search warrant in August was issued for the property. It resulted in the recovery of approximately 100 additional documents with classified markings, bringing the total up to 300.

Also notable was the volume of records recovered: A total of 33 boxes, containing nearly 11,000 records, were removed from Mar-a-Lago.

An aerial view of the Mar-a-Lago estate, on the Florida coast.
Hundreds of classified documents were allegedly recovered at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida [File: Steve Helber/AP Photo]

Possible ‘unlawful concealment’

Experts have warned that Trump could face obstruction charges for his conduct in the investigation. An FBI affidavit, dated August, describes a criminal investigation into the “improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorised spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records”.

As Al Jazeera correspondent Shihab Rattansi explained, early speculation indicates that Trump could face charges related to conspiracy to obstruct, making false statements and the willful retention of documents.

“This might be a charge under the Espionage Act,” he explained. “The Espionage Act doesn’t necessarily mean espionage. It can just mean mishandling documents that you shouldn’t have.”

But, Rattansi warned, even Trump’s own lawyers do not have the specifics.

“They don’t have the charges either. They don’t have the indictment. What they received was a summons to appear in court in Miami next Tuesday. And from the language contained in that documentation and some other communications, perhaps, they’ve gleaned what the charges may be,” Rattansi explained.

“The indictment may not be unsealed until that court date on Tuesday. We just don’t know.”

Ongoing rivalry with Biden

In his social media posts on Thursday, Trump lashed out at Biden, who defeated him in his 2020 campaign for reelection.

“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump wrote, referring to the 15 removed boxes. He accused Biden of hypocrisy, claiming — without evidence — that the current president had “documents strewn all over his garage floor” when officials searched his Delaware residence.

The indictment represents perhaps the greatest legal hurdle Trump has faced since leaving office. In addition to the 34 felony charges he faces in New York, the former president was found liable for defamation and sexual assault last month in a civil suit brought by writer E Jean Carroll, who was awarded $5m in damages.

Trump also faces probes into whether he sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election — one in the southern state of Georgia and another at the federal level, also led by Special Counsel Smith.

The Republican leader has repeatedly described that election as “rigged”, and a group of his supporters attempted to disrupt the tally of the Electoral College votes on January 6, 2021, storming the US Capitol and forcing legislators to flee.

Different probes, different scenarios

US Attorney General Merrick Garland, a Biden appointee, named Smith as special counsel for the two-part Trump investigation in November. Garland also tapped lawyer Robert Hur in January to serve as a special counsel in a review of Biden’s handling of classified documents.

But the legal stakes are likely to be different for Trump and Biden. In the latter’s case, lawyers contacted the National Archives upon discovering approximately 10 classified documents related to Biden’s time as vice president, under Barack Obama.

That discovery — at a Washington, DC, think tank in November — led to the recovery of a second batch of documents at Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home. Biden’s lawyers quickly turned over what they described as a “small number” of documents and authorised a search of the home, which took place over 13 hours and turned up six more records.

There was no evidence Biden was aware of the documents, nor that he attempted to conceal them – two questions that linger over Trump’s case.

Likewise, in Pence’s case, his lawyers proactively reported a “small number” of classified documents in the former vice president’s Indiana home, and a subsequent FBI search turned up one additional classified record. On June 2, the justice department announced it had ended its investigation into Pence’s handling of the documents without filing any charges.

All three men — Trump, Pence and Biden — have announced their candidacy for the 2024 presidential race.

Republicans rally behind Trump

Trump remains the frontrunner on the Republican side, setting him up for a potential rematch against the Democratic Biden. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s social media posts on Thursday, at least one of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, commented on indictment news, urging caution.

“We don’t get our news from Trump’s Truth Social account. Let’s see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released,” Christie, a prominent Trump critic, wrote on Twitter.

He added: “No one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed.”

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, largely rallied around the former president, denouncing what they considered a politically motivated attack.

“Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America,” Kevin McCarthy, speaker of the House of Representatives, posted on Twitter.

“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 weaponisation of power accountable.”

An unprecedented indictment

Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general under former Republican President Ronald Reagan, told Al Jazeera that the federal charges are the first of their kind against a US president — but just barely.

“Richard Nixon was about ready to be indicted by [special prosecutor] Leon Jaworski for obstruction of justice, perjury,” Fein said, referencing the former Republican president implicated in the 1970s Watergate scandal.

“He was pardoned by Gerald Ford,” Fein continued. “So he was on the verge of indictment, but the pardon saved him.”

What stands out in the Trump case, Fein argued, is the “outrageous way” the former president has conducted himself before, during and after his single term in office. Fein pointed to statements Pence made this week, alleging that Trump presented him with a choice on the day of the Capitol attack: “that I choose between him and the Constitution”.

“No other president in the history of the United States, in over 230 years, had ever asked a vice president to trash the 12th Amendment,” Fein said, referencing a part of the US Constitution that governs presidential elections. “So yeah, this is unprecedented because the wrongdoing is unprecedented.”

Fein also dismissed Trump’s assertion that the latest charges were part of a greater “witch hunt” against his political career: “What else is new? That’s all he’s got to say. You’ll notice he doesn’t come forth with any exculpatory evidence that shows that he’s innocent. He just starts screaming and yelling.”

“This is just the same playbook,” Fein added. “I think his base is dwindling. I think Republicans are going to be split, especially that other presidential aspirants, even Ron DeSantis, may turn against Trump.”

Trump has said he is expected in federal court in Miami, Florida, at 3pm US Eastern Time (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies