Federal prosecutors detonated another bombshell under Donald Trump’s election campaign Friday, this time hitting the former president with 37 felony charges related to the cavalier handling of national security secrets.
A newly unsealed indictment provides the most detailed account yet of what is only the latest legal entanglement for the man vowing to Make America Great Again: a mass and motley export of delicate documents upon leaving office in January 2021.
And in a nod to the politically explosive timing of the charges, special counsel Jack Smith vowed Friday that prosecutors will waste no time.
“We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone,” the famously media-wary Smith said in a brief statement, after which he took no questions.
“Applying those laws, collecting facts, that’s what determines the outcome of an investigation. Nothing more and nothing less.”
He reminded people that every defendant must be considered innocent until proven guilty: “To that end, my office will seek a speedy trial in this matter, consistent with the public interest and the rights of the accused.”
The document released Friday accuses Trump of storing “scores of boxes” of classified documents in various rooms throughout his Mar-a-Lago sanctuary in Florida, including a ballroom, a bathroom and a shower.
Photos that accompany the indictment show exactly that: stacks and stacks of file-sized cardboard boxes in various locations throughout the gilded country club, a scene likely familiar to anyone who’s ever had to move house.
Trump’s moving boxes, however, were a little different.
They included “information regarding defence and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack,” the indictment reads.
“The unauthorized disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods.”
It goes on to detail two separate instances in 2021 when, during media interviews at his golf club in New Jersey, he showed off to his guests some of the secrets he’d held on to — even acknowledging he probably shouldn’t have them.
“This is secret information,” Trump is quoted as saying to a writer and staffers in his office. “See, as president I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
Added one of his aides, jokingly: “Now we have a problem.”
The indictment also describes Trump’s meetings with his lawyers in May 2022, shortly after he was subpoenaed to produce outstanding materials. One of them — identified only as “Trump Attorney 1” — described the former president’s thinking.
“I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t,” the indictment says the attorney recalled Trump saying.
“What happens if we just don’t respond at all, or don’t play ball with them? Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?”
Trump alone faces 31 counts of willful retention of national defence information, while he and aide Walt Nauda together face charges of conspiring to obstruct justice, withholding documents, “corruptly concealing” documents, scheming to conceal and making false statements.
Trump’s legal woes — he was arraigned in March in the hush-money case involving adult film star Stormy Daniels — are the biggest question mark in his effort to secure the Republican nomination for president.
“A person can run for president if they’re indicted, a person can run for president from prison — and Trump shows no signs of withdrawing from the race,” said Matthew Lebo, a politics professor at Western University in London, Ont.
“Does this pry people away from him? Does this make it easier for more Republican candidates to speak out against him and maybe make some inroads? It’s not going to help him narrow the gap of losing by 7 million votes last time.”
One school of thought that’s long made the rounds in Washington is that President Joe Biden, Trump’s bitter rival in 2020 and eventual successor, has quietly relished the chance to run against him, having already bested him once.
But that doesn’t mean that anyone else in the race to secure the Republican nomination, of which Trump is currently the clear front-runner, is likely to have any better luck against an incumbent president, Lebo said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who began the year as seemingly an heir apparent to Trump’s scorched-earth, division-exploiting style of campaigning and governing, has largely fallen off the radar.
And few experts are giving much of a chance to the alternatives, a wide field that includes former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Trump’s own vice-president, Mike Pence.
“The alternatives to Trump, none of them stand out as potentially real problems (for Biden),” Lebo said. “There’s not a Republican superstar waiting in the wings. The Republican party is very divided.”
It all adds up to an unprecedented and remarkable presidential election campaign, even more so than the last two. But the bigger challenge won’t so much be who wins the election, but who becomes president — separate concepts in the post-Trump U.S. these days.
“I will put money on the table, today, that Joe Biden is going to get more votes than Donald Trump in 2024, or whoever the Republican candidate is,” Lebo said.
“Will a joint session of Congress award more than 270 electoral votes to Joe Biden, with Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House? I don’t know that I’d bet money on that.”
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.