Donald Trump appeared before a federal magistrate judge in Miami on Tuesday afternoon for a moment unprecedented in American history, as the former President pleaded not guilty to 37 felony counts related to his alleged mishandling of classified national security documents after leaving the White House.
Trump, the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, was formally booked and fingerprinted before his arraignment, where he sat between his lawyers with his arms crossed. Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the charges, sat in court behind the team of prosecutors handling the case. Trump did not have a mugshot taken.
While the court process was largely routine, the case is anything but. The indictment marks the first time in U.S. history that a former President faces federal charges by the government he once oversaw, kickstarting a lengthy legal process that is set to unfold at the height of the 2024 presidential campaign. (Trump had already become the first current or former President to ever be indicted earlier this year, when he was charged in a state case in New York for allegedly falsifying business records in a scheme to cover up hush money paid to a former porn star. Trump pleaded not guilty.)
The Justice Department took the momentous step of presenting federal criminal charges against Trump last week, accusing him of mishandling classified documents he kept upon leaving office and then obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim them. The charges, unveiled on Friday, include willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
In the indictment, prosecutors detailed serious accusations that Trump stored boxes containing classified documents in various locations at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, including a ballroom, a bathroom and shower, his office, his bedroom, and a storage room. Among the top-secret records were details on foreign nations’ nuclear capabilities, information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both U.S. and foreign countries, U.S. nuclear programs, potential vulnerabilities of the U.S. and its allies, and plans for possible retaliation in response to an attack, according to the indictment.
The indictment also details accusations that Trump twice shared classified information with people who lacked security clearances. In a recording that investigators obtained, Trump indicates that he understands that he cannot declassify records after leaving office and acknowledges that he possesses a classified record. Trump faces maximum sentences adding up to at least 100 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines, if convicted of the charges.
This investigation began after the National Archives found classified records in a batch of documents Trump returned in 2022, prompting the Justice Department to issue a subpoena demanding that he return any other classified material in his possession. Trump’s legal team produced about three dozen additional documents, but the indictment alleges that Trump’s lawyers did not have access to all of the records.
Trump’s personal aide and long-time U.S. Navy valet, Walt Nauta, also appeared Tuesday before the magistrate judge, charged with lying to investigators and scheming with Trump to conceal boxes containing classified documents from the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors. The judges ordered the defendants to not discuss the facts of the criminal case with each other or any witnesses ahead of a high-stakes public trial with a date yet to be set.
Trump, whose legal team was in flux after two lawyers resigned shortly after the indictment was made public, was represented in court by Christopher Kise, a former Florida solicitor general, and Todd Blanche, a New York defense lawyer.
The case has been assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, who was nominated by Trump and ruled in his favor last year in a dispute over whether an outside special master could be appointed to review the seized classified documents. (A federal appeals panel ultimately overturned her ruling.)
Trump is expected to comment Tuesday evening from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. He has denied any wrongdoing and painted the indictment as a politically motivated effort to undermine him, even using the indictment to seek campaign contributions. Earlier in the day, Trump publicly attacked Smith, calling him a “Thug” and a “lunatic” in a series of social media posts.
The classified documents case is just the latest addition to Trump’s mounting legal troubles. The former President is currently facing four separate criminal investigations, including another inquiry by Smith’s team into attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss, as well as his role in the events that led to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is exploring Trump’s efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election win in the state, where Trump and his allies made unfounded allegations of voter fraud. In addition, the New York case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, which involves 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, is set to go to trial next spring.
The scene on Tuesday was similar to Trump’s April court appearance in New York, where scores of spectators and protesters gathered outside waving flags and props as helicopter television crews tracked his motorcade heading to the courthouse. After Trump entered the Miami courthouse, one of his lawyers, Alina Habba, spoke to reporters gathered outside. “What we are witnessing today is the blatant and unapologetic weaponization of the criminal justice system,” she said.
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