Explained: Donald Trump indictment: Retention of classified docs, conspiracy to obstruct justice, lies
The federal indictment against Donald Trump accuses the former president of illegally hoarding classified documents at his Florida estate after leaving the White House in 2021, and then scheming and lying to thwart government efforts to recover them.
Justice Department prosecutors brought 37 felony counts against Trump in the indictment, relying upon photographs from Mar-a-Lago, surveillance video, text messages between staffers, Trump’s own words, those of his lawyers, and other evidence.
An aide to Trump, Walt Nauta, was charged as a co-conspirator with six felony counts.
Trump says he is innocent and has decried the criminal case, the second indictment against him in a matter of months, as an attempt by his political opponents to hinder his 2024 campaign. He is expected to make his first court appearance on Tuesday (June 13) in Miami.
Here are key takeaways from the indictment unsealed on Friday (June 9):
What are the charges?
Trump faces 37 felony counts, including 31 counts of wilful retention of national defence information under the Espionage Act. Other charges include: conspiracy to obstruct justice; corruptly concealing a document or record; concealing a document in a federal investigation; and making false statements.
Each of the wilful retention counts pertains to a specific classified document found at Mar-A-Lago marked “SECRET” or “TOP SECRET.” Topics addressed in the documents include details about US nuclear weapons, the nuclear capabilities of a foreign country, and the military activities or capabilities of other countries.
The conspiracy charges deal with Trump’s alleged attempts to hide documents from his lawyer or federal investigators. The false statement charges stem from Trump causing his lawyer to tell the FBI that no more classified documents were at Mar-a-Lago but then the FBI later found more than 100 documents during an August 2022 search.
The most serious charges carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years each. But judges have discretion and, if convicted, first-time offenders rarely get anywhere near the maximum sentence. Being a former president would also likely be a major consideration in any sentencing.
What is the alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice?
The indictment accuses Trump and Nauta of conspiring to hide the secret documents from the grand jury, which in May 2022 issued a subpoena for him to turn them over.
The conspiracy allegation included a suggestion from Trump that his lawyer falsely tell investigators that the former president didn’t have any more classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. It also involved moving boxes to hide the secret documents from Trump’s lawyer, and suggesting that Trump’s lawyer hide or destroy documents that investigators were seeking.
The indictment says that, at Trump’s direction, Nauta moved about 64 boxes of documents from a Mar-a-Lago storage room to the former president’s residence in May 2022. He then returned approximately 30 boxes to the storage room on June 2 the same day Trump’s legal team came to examine the boxes and search for classified documents to return to the government, the indictment says.
Nauta had a brief phone call with Trump before returning those boxes, the indictment says. Neither Trump nor Nauta told the former president’s lawyers that Nauta had moved any of the storage room contents, the indictment says.
Is Trump accused of sharing classified information?
The indictment alleges that Trump showed classified documents to people who didn’t have security clearances on two occasions.
The court papers detail a meeting Trump had in July 2021 with a writer and publisher about an upcoming book. Trump told the pair, “look what I found” and showed them what he described as “a senior military official’s plan of attack,” according to an audio recording of that conversation obtained by investigators.
Trump acknowledged during that meeting that the document was highly confidential and secret information, the indictment says. He also says that he could have declassified the document if he was still president.
“Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret,” he said, according to the indictment.
A few months later, Trump showed a representative of his political action committee a classified map of a foreign country while discussing a military operation in the country that was not going well, the indictment says. Trump acknowledged that he shouldn’t be showing the map to the person and told him not to get too close, prosecutors allege.
What evidence do prosecutors have?
In addition to the audio recording, prosecutors also relied upon text messages between Trump employees, photos of boxes of documents stored in various rooms throughout Mar-a-Lago, and details about conversations between Trump and his lawyers that were memorialized by one of them.
In one conversation with his lawyers, Trump said: “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes.” Trump also asked one of his lawyers if it would be better “if we just told them we don’t have anything here,” the indictment says.
Photographs in the indictment show boxes stacked on a stage in a ballroom as well as in a bathroom. Another shows boxes that spilled over in a storage room, including a document marked SECRET/REL TO USA, FVEY, which means information releasable only to members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Where will the case be heard?
While Trump’s first court appearance on Tuesday (June 13) is expected to be in front of a magistrate judge in Miami, the case was filed in West Palm Beach about 70 miles to the north. The case was assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, who issued rulings favourable to him last year and expressed repeated skepticism of Justice Department positions.
Cannon was broadly criticised last year for granting the Trump legal team’s request for a special master to conduct an independent review of the hundreds of classified documents seized from his Florida property last year. The move, which temporarily halted core aspects of the Justice Department’s investigative work, was overturned months later by a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court.
(With agency inputs)