What is the Trump Mar-a-Lago case about and why is it significant?

Former president for the first time faces federal criminal charges over his handling of classified documents

Donald Trump has been criminally charged over his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, one of the most significant legal developments for the former president since leaving the White House.

The case marks the first time the justice department has charged Trump and adds to the mounting legal troubles Trump faces as he seeks to return to the presidency. Here’s a breakdown of where things stand:

What is this case about?

When Donald Trump left the White House, he took documents related to his presidency with him to Mar-a-Lago, his residence in Florida. Federal law requires presidential documents to be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara). In May of 2021, Nara discovered it was missing records from Trump’s presidency and began requesting that the former president return them. Trump’s attorneys later turned over 15 boxes of records that included 184 documents that were classified in some way. Nara referred the matter to the justice department, and the FBI began investigating in February of 2022.

Over the next few months, the FBI and justice department went about trying to retrieve additional classified documents from Mar-a-Lago. In June of 2022, Trump’s lawyers turned over 38 additional documents with classified markings. In August of 2022, the FBI conducted a raid on Mar-a-Lago and found more than 100 documents with classified markings.

The justice department has been investigating whether classified material was mishandled and whether there was obstruction of its investigation in the matter.

What is Trump charged with?

Trump is charged with wilful retention of national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document, corruptly concealing a document, concealing a document in a federal investigation, engaging in a scheme to conceal and false statements, people familiar with the matter told the Guardian.

Why are these charges significant?

This is the first time that Trump has faced federal criminal charges. The other criminal matters pending against Trump are in state courts.

The justice department is generally extremely careful when it chooses to bring cases and so the fact that prosecutors felt confident enough to indict Trump, knowing the political maelstrom that would result, is a signal of the strength of the case against him.

Where do the other criminal cases and investigations against Trump stand?

Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury in March and also faces criminal charges in New York over hush money payments to Stormy Daniels.

The district attorney in Fulton county, Georgia, is also investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the election there and has signaled charges could come this summer.

What’s some of the strongest evidence in the classified documents case?

Prosecutors obtained a 2021 recording of Trump in which he discusses a classified document in his possession dealing with a military confrontation with Iran, CNN reported earlier this month. On the recording, Trump reportedly acknowledges that the document is classified. That admission is significant because it could undercut a key defense from Trump’s team – the idea that he declassified the documents while he was president.

Prosecutors have also obtained roughly 50 pages of dictated notes from Evan Corcoran, one of Trump’s attorneys, that shed light on Trump’s response to a justice department subpoena demanding the return of any classified documents. In one instance, Corcoran recounted warning Trump that he was obligated to return every classified document in his possession.

The notes also detail Corcoran’s attempt to locate the documents at Mar-a-Lago. As he recounted, Trump employees suggested that he search the storage room at the property. When Corcoran asked if he should look anywhere else, the Guardian has reported, he was told that should be sufficient – advice that turned out to be flawed when the FBI later found classified material also in Trump’s office.

How has Trump responded?

Trump has decried the investigation as politically motivated and downplayed the significance of handling the documents. He has said he had the right to take some documents from office and did nothing different than Joe Biden and Mike Pence, both of whom had classified documents in their possession after leaving office. A separate special prosecutor is looking into Biden’s handling of classified material and justice department officials have said they will not charge Pence.

Who is leading the investigation?

The attorney general, Merrick Garland, appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to take over the investigation in November. Smith is a former chief prosecutor of the Hague. He is also the former head of the justice department’s public integrity section and a former federal prosecutor with experience in public corruption cases.

Is this related to January 6?

No. Smith is separately overseeing an investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Does a federal indictment prevent Trump from running for president?

No. Neither the indictment itself nor a conviction would prevent Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.

And as the New York case showed, criminal charges have historically been a boon to his fundraising. The campaign announced that it had raised over $4m in the 24 hours after that indictment became public, far smashing its previous record after the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Associated Press contributed reporting


Sam Levine

The GuardianTramp

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