Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to all counts related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents as he was formally arraigned on Tuesday, becoming the first former US president to face federal criminal charges.
Federal prosecutors accused Trump of wilfully withholding classified documents obtained during his presidency and obstructing justice in his efforts to conceal those materials from authorities, as detailed in a 49-page indictment unsealed on Friday. The former president was charged with 37 federal counts, including 31 violations of the Espionage Act.
Trump arrived at the federal courthouse in Miami, Florida, to a chaotic scene, as law enforcement officers closely watched the hundreds of protesters gathered to celebrate or denounce the former president. Trump’s son, Eric Trump, accompanied his father to the courthouse, where they arrived in a motorcade and were quickly escorted inside for the arraignment.
Trump made his initial court appearance with his aide and now co-defendant Walt Nauta, who faces six federal charges for his alleged role in the scheme to keep the classified documents concealed from authorities. Throughout the short hearing, Trump appeared frustrated as he sat at the defense table, frowning with his arms crossed. But Nauta looked quite nervous, staring down at the floor and occasionally biting his lip as the hearing unfolded.
Trump was released on bond on the condition that he would not discuss the case with a list of witnesses to be provided by the office of special counsel Jack Smith, who sat in the front row of the courtroom during the arraignment. Although Nauta was indicted alongside Trump, the aide was not arraigned on Tuesday, as his lawyer was not admitted to practice in the southern district of Florida. Nauta is now scheduled to be arraigned on 27 June.
Trump’s lawyers include Chris Kise, who is admitted to practice in Florida’s southern district.
After entering his plea and departing the courthouse, Trump made a brief stop at a Miami restaurant, where supporters happily greeted the twice-arrested former president. Trump then made his way to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he delivered remarks on Tuesday evening to respond to the indictment.
Calling the indictment a “a political persecution like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation” he railed against Joe Biden, the Department of Justice, and past presidents who he said exhibited similar behavior.
Trump kept his speech relatively brief and appeared to leave directly after the event.
Trump’s appearance at the courthouse came five days after news of the indictment first broke, sending shockwaves through Washington and around the country. Trump and his allies have dismissed the charges as a political “witch-hunt” meant to punish the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but the indictment filed by Smith’s office paints a damning picture of a former president determined to conceal classified materials from authorities.
According to the indictment, Trump intentionally withheld 31 classified documents from federal officials even after a subpoena was issued to recover the materials from the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Some of those documents included information on America’s nuclear programs, the US military’s vulnerabilities and the White House’s plans for retaliation in the event of an attack. The former president appears to have been aware of the illegality of retaining the documents, as recordings obtained by the special counsel show Trump acknowledging he could no longer declassify information after leaving office.
The indictment underscored the national security risk of Trump’s alleged actions, as highly sensitive government information was stored in ballrooms and bathrooms at Mar-a-Lago, where guests could have accessed the documents.
Trump allegedly conspired with Nauta to conceal the documents from investigators and made false statements to FBI agents investigating the former president’s handling of classified material.
Trump’s claims of political persecution cannot erase the compelling evidence compiled by Smith’s team, and they will not ease the former president’s legal troubles in at least three other jurisdictions.
Trump’s court appearance marked the second time in two months that he was forced to respond to an indictment, although the documents case included the first set of federal charges filed against the former president. In April, Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records in connection to a hush-money scheme during the 2016 presidential election.
In addition to those two existing cases, Trump could soon face more charges in Georgia, where investigators are examining his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and in Washington, as Smith’s team considers legal consequences for the former president’s role in the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Despite Trump’s numerous legal liabilities, his popularity with the Republican base has proven resilient. According to a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted last week, only 7% of likely Republican primary voters believe the indictment may change their opinion of Trump for the worse while 14% say the charges may actually improve their perception of the former president.
However, voters’ sentiments may shift as the documents case continues to unfold. It could still be several months before the case goes to trial, although Smith has expressed his wish for a “speedy trial”.
The documents case will be overseen by Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump-appointed judge who was widely criticized last year for temporarily blocking federal investigators from examining the classified materials seized from Mar-a-Lago. Some legal experts have already called on Cannon to recuse herself from the case because of her prior controversial ruling, although she has not yet done so.
After the Tuesday arraignment, Trump’s legal team is expected to file a motion to dismiss the case, but that effort will probably fail.
Trump will have to act quickly to begin fighting the charges meticulously outlined in Smith’s indictment. If he does not, he could soon be campaigning for president from a prison cell.