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Donald Trump stored, showed off and refused to return classified documents, indictment says

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House, early Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House, early Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington. Copyright Evan Vucci/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Evan Vucci/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews with AP
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Donald Trump improperly stored in his Florida estate sensitive documents on nuclear capabilities, repeatedly enlisted aides and lawyers to help him hide records demanded by investigators and cavalierly showed off a Pentagon “plan of attack” and classified map, according to a felony indictment.

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The conduct alleged in the historic indictment - the first federal case against a former president - cuts to the heart of any president's responsibility to safeguard the government's most valuable secrets. Prosecutors say the documents he stowed, refused to return and in some cases showed to visitors risked jeopardizing not only relations with foreign nations but also the safety of troops and confidential sources.

“Our laws that protect national defence information are critical to the safety and security of the United States and they must be enforced,” Jack Smith, the Justice Department special counsel who filed the case, said in his first public statements. “Violations of those laws put our country at risk.”

AP/AP
This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, shows boxes of records stored in a bathroom and shower in the Lake Room at Mar-a-Lago estate.AP/AP

Trump, currently the leading contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is due to make his first court appearance Tuesday afternoon in Miami. In a rare bit of welcome news for the former president, the judge initially assigned to the case is someone he appointed and who drew criticism for rulings in his favour during a dispute last year over a special master assigned to review the seized classified documents. Meanwhile, two lawyers who worked the case for months announced Friday that they had resigned from Trump's legal team.

All told, Trump faces 37 felony counts - 31 pertaining to the willful retention of national defence information, the balance relating to alleged conspiracy, obstruction and false statements - that could result in a substantial prison sentence in the event of a conviction. A Trump aide who prosecutors said moved dozens of boxes at his Florida estate at his direction and then lied to investigators about it, was charged in the same indictment with conspiracy and other crimes.

Trump responded to the indictment Friday by falsely conflating his case with a separate classified documents investigation concerning President Joe Biden. Though classified records were found in a Biden home and office, there has been no indication that the president, unlike Trump, sought to conceal them or knew they were there.

“Nobody said I wasn’t allowed to look at the personal records that I brought with me from the White House. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Trump said in a post on his Truth Social platform.

The case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to criminal charges. But among the various investigations he has faced, legal experts - as well as Trump’s own aides - had long seen the Mar-a-Lago probe as the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution. 

Campaign aides had been bracing for the fallout since Trump’s attorneys were notified that he was the target of the investigation, assuming it was not a matter of if charges would be brought, but when.

The indictment arrives at a time when Trump is continuing to dominate the Republican presidential primary. A Trump campaign official described the former president’s mood as “defiant" and he is expected to deliver a full-throated rebuke of the filing during a speech before Republican Party officials in Georgia Saturday afternoon and will also speak in North Carolina in the evening.

Alex Brandon/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Special counsel Jack Smith speaks to reporters Friday, June 9, 2023, in Washington.Alex Brandon/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Aides were notably more reserved after the indictment’s unsealing as they reckoned with the gravity of the legal charges and the threat they pose to Trump beyond the potential short-term political gain.

The document's startling scope and breadth of allegations, including reliance on surveillance video and an audio recording, will almost certainly make it harder for Republicans to rail against than an earlier New York criminal case that many legal analysts had derided as weak.

The documents case is a milestone for a Justice Department that had investigated Trump for years - as president and private citizen - but had never before charged him with a crime. The most notable investigation was an earlier special counsel probe into ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia, but prosecutors in that probe cited Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. Once he left office, though, he lost that protection.

AP/AP
This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, shows boxes of records being stored on the stage in a ballroom at Trump's Florida estate.AP/AP

The 49-page indictment centres on hundreds of classified documents that Trump took with him from the White House to Mar-a-Lago upon leaving office in January 2021. Even as “tens of thousands of members and guests” visited Mar-a-Lago between the end of Trump’s presidency and August 2022, when the FBI obtained a search warrant, documents were recklessly stored in spaces including a "ballroom, a bathroom and shower, and office space, his bedroom, and a storage room.”

The indictment claims that, for a two-month period between January and March 15, 2021, some of Trump’s boxes were stored in one of Mar-a-Lago’s gilded ballrooms. A picture included in the indictment shows boxes stacked in rows on the ballroom’s stage.

Prosecutors allege that Trump, who claimed without evidence that he had declassified all the documents before leaving office, understood his duty to care for classified information but shirked it anyway.

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