World

Trump in trouble: What are the new charges facing the ex-president?

The Department of Justice carried out an investigation (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
The Department of Justice carried out an investigation (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Donald Trump has been indicted on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate, less than three months after he was charged in New York with 34 counts of falsifying business records.

Here is a look at the new charges, the special counsel’s investigation and how the ex-president’s case differs from those of other politicians known to be in possession of classified documents:

– What are the charges and how is Mr Trump reacting?

Mr Trump has been charged with seven counts related to the mishandling of classified documents, sources have said.

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Classified documents were found at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate (Steve Helber/AP)

Mr Trump’s lawyer James Trusty said on Thursday on CNN that the indictment includes charges of wilful retention of national defence information, obstruction of justice, false statements and conspiracy.

Mr Trump, on his Truth Social app, called it “a DARK DAY for the United States of America”.

In a video post, he said, “I’m innocent and we will prove that very, very soundly and hopefully very quickly.”

Within 20 minutes of breaking the news, his 2024 presidential campaign sent out a fundraising missive telling his followers he had been indicted and asking for financial support.

– What happens next?

The Justice Department has not confirmed the indictment, and any charges have not been publicly filed.

Mr Trump said he had been summoned to appear in court on Tuesday afternoon in Miami.

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The Department of Justice carried out an investigation (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

When he was charged by the Manhattan district attorney in the New York case, Mr Trump surrendered to authorities, where he was booked behind closed doors and appeared in the courtroom, sitting with his lawyers at the defence table.

– How did this case come about?

Officials with the National Archives and Records Administration reached out to representatives for Mr Trump in spring 2021 when they realised that important material from his time in office was missing from their collection.

According to the Presidential Records Act, White House documents are considered property of the US government and must be preserved.

A Trump representative told the National Archives in December 2021 that presidential records had been found at Mar-a-Lago.

In January 2022, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of documents from Mr Trump’s Florida home, later telling Justice Department officials that they contained “a lot” of classified material.

That May, the FBI and Justice Department issued a subpoena for remaining classified documents in Mr Trump’s possession. Investigators who went to visit the property weeks later to collect the records were given roughly three dozen documents and a sworn statement from Mr Trump’s lawyers attesting that the requested information had been returned.

But that assertion turned out to be false. With a search warrant, federal officials returned to Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 and seized more than 33 boxes and containers totaling 11,000 documents from a storage room and an office, including 100 classified documents.

In all, roughly 300 documents with classification markings — including some at the top-secret level — have been recovered from Mr Trump since he left office in January 2021.

– How did a special counsel get involved?

Last year, US attorney general Merrick Garland picked Jack Smith, a veteran war crimes prosecutor with a background in public corruption probes, to lead investigations into the presence of classified documents at Mr Trump’s Florida estate, as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Janurary 6 2021 insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Mr Smith’s appointment was a recognition by Mr Garland of the politics involved in an investigation into a former president and current White House candidate. Mr Garland himself was selected by President Joe Biden, whom Mr Trump is seeking to challenge for the White House in 2024.

Special counsels are appointed in cases in which the Justice Department perceives itself as having a conflict or where it is deemed to be in the public interest to have someone outside the government come in and take responsibility for a matter.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, a special counsel must have “a reputation for integrity and impartial decision-making,” as well as “an informed understanding of the criminal law and Department of Justice policies”.

– Did not Joe Biden and former vice president Mike Pence have classified documents too?

Yes, but the circumstances of their cases are vastly different from the situation involving Mr Trump.

After classified documents were found at Mr Biden’s think tank and Mr Pence’s Indiana home, their lawyers notified authorities and quickly arranged for them to be handed over. They also authorised other searches by federal authorities to search for additional documents.

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President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the 2020 election (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

There is no indication either was aware of the existence of the records before they were found, and no evidence has so far emerged that Mr Biden or Mr Pence sought to conceal the discoveries. That is important because the Justice Department historically looks for wilfulness in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.

A special counsel was appointed earlier this year to probe how classified materials ended up at Mr Biden’s Delaware home and former office.

But even if the Justice Department were to find Mr Biden’s case prosecutable on the evidence, its Office of Legal Counsel has concluded that a president is immune from prosecution during his time in office.

As for Mr Pence, the Justice Department informed his legal team earlier this month that it would not be pursuing criminal charges against him over his handling of the documents.

– Does a federal indictment prevent Mr Trump from running for office?

No, neither the indictment nor a conviction would prevent Mr Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.

And as the New York case showed, criminal charges have historically been a boost to his fundraising.

The campaign announced that it had raised more than 4 million dollars in the 24 hours after that indictment became public, beating its previous record after the FBI search of Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

– How are Mr Trump’s Republican rivals reacting to the news?

Many of M Trump’s challengers for the Republican nomination jumped to his defence on Thursday night after news of the indictment broke.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis accused the Justice Department of political bias in charging the former president.

“The weaponisation of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” Mr DeSantis tweeted. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.”

He questioned why the Justice Department had been “so zealous” in bringing charges against Mr Trump and “so passive” about going after former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton or Mr Biden’s son Hunter.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said he felt the justice system’s “scales are weighted” based on politics.

“In America, every single person is presumed innocent, not guilty,” Mr Scott said on Fox News, decrying “the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president”.

However, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who called for Mr Trump to drop out of the race after the New York charges were filed, said the federal indictment marked “a sad day for our country” and “reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign”.