By Lawrence Wilson
Former president Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a federal court in Miami on Tuesday to 37 felony charges related to his handling of classified government documents.
“One of the saddest days in the history of our country,” Trump wrote on Truth Social on June 13 while en route to the federal courthouse. “We are a nation in decline!!!”
Trump and his Republican supporters have decried the charges as politically motivated, while others see them as evidence that no one is above the law.
The plea marks the latest step in a years-long legal battle between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the former president, one that now has serious implications for the 2024 presidential race in which Trump is the leading Republican candidate.
The former president arrived at the federal courthouse in Miami more than an hour prior to his scheduled 3 p.m. arraignment. The case is the first time a former president of the United States was formally accused of violating federal law.
A large crowd of Trump supporters gathered among the rows of palm trees in the spacious court plaza.
At the hearing, Trump appeared calm and composed in his trademark blue suit and red tie as he appeared before Judge Aileen Cannon, whom he appointed to the federal bench in 2020.
Trump was flanked by attorneys Todd Blanche, a former federal prosecutor, and Christopher Kise, a former solicitor general of Florida, as Special Counsel Jack Smith presented the government’s charges.
The indictment alleges that Trump unlawfully retained 31 government documents, including some classified as top secret.
The documents included “information regarding defense 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,” according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges that Trump showed classified documents to others twice in 2021, a potential violation of the federal Espionage Act.
The most serious charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison.
Trump has steadfastly maintained his innocence, calling the charges “a travesty of justice,” “election interference,” and a “witch hunt.”
Timeline of the Case
The case centers on a chain of events that began over two years ago with a request by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for the return of government records. It eventually led to the execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, the appointment of a special prosecutor, and the June 8 indictment of the former president.
On May 6, 2021, NARA requested records from Trump, believing that a number of government documents were missing. In December of that year, a Trump representative told NARA that about a dozen boxes of presidential records had been located at Mar-A-Lago and that staffers were searching for more.
In January 2022, Trump’s representatives provided 15 boxes of documents to NARA.
In February, NARA said it had found “items marked as classified national security information” among the Trump documents. In April the White House Counsel’s Office asked that NARA provide the FBI access to the 15 Mar-A-Lago boxes. The FBI later said that agents found 67 documents marked “confidential,” 92 marked “secret,” and 25 marked “top secret.”
Trump, who had not conceded the 202o presidential race, maintained that he had declassified the materials.
In June Trump attorneys provided the NARA with another 38 documents with classification markings, including five documents marked “confidential,” 16 marked “secret,” and 17 marked “top secret.” Trump’s representatives attested at the time that, following a diligent search, they believed no other classified materials remained at Mar-A-Lago.
In August, FBI agents served a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in what many describe as a raid on the former president’s home. Agents seized 36 items containing about 100 classified records. The Department of Justice (DOJ) later asserted that classified materials were “likely concealed and removed” from a Mar-a-Lago storage room to obstruct the investigation.
Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on November 15, 2022. The DOJ appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to oversee the investigations against Trump three days later.
Trump announced on social media on June 8, 2023, that his lawyers had informed him of the indictment against him.
Trump returned to the campaign trail two days after announcing the indictment. Addressing supporters in Columbus, Georgia, the former president took the offensive against both the DOJ and President Joe Biden.
“The ridiculous and baseless indictment by the Biden administration’s weaponized Department of Injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country,” he told a capacity crowd of about 3,000 people who gathered for the GOP convention on June 10.
Trump and others allege that his indictment was timed to divert attention from an emerging alleged bribery scandal centering on Democrat President Joe Biden—information that House Republicans are prying loose after the FBI.
“Biden is trying to jail his leading political opponent, just like they do in Stalinist Russia or Communist China,” Trump told the audience.
Trump also pointed to the fact that Biden also possessed classified documents from his time as a U.S. senator.
“Biden didn’t have any authority and he had no right to possess those documents,” Trump said. “Yet nothing happened to ‘Crooked Joe.’”
Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence both voluntarily surrendered classified documents they discovered among their papers to the federal government last year.
Most Republican politicians view the indictment as a political attack against Trump.
“It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him. Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrote on Twitter.
“Joe Biden has used his Justice Department … tonight to indict his top political opponent, Trump. He has trampled the rule of law to benefit himself. He has led the country into profound danger,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote on Twitter.
Contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination generally took the same tack, attacking the DOJ rather than Trump, their political opponent.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decried the “weaponization of federal law enforcement.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said the American people are “exhausted by prosecutorial overreach.”
Only former governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas criticized Trump over the indictment.
Christie said Trump’s wounds were “self-inflicted” in a televised June 9 interview on Fox News. “That’s weight that Donald Trump will have to carry if he’s the nominee into a general election in November. And why do we want to take that risk?” Christie said.
Hutchinson called for Trump to drop out of the presidential contest in a statement on June 8. “This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign.”
Democrats viewed the indictment as evidence that the American justice system is working.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter the indictment affirms the rule of law. “For four years, he acted like he was above the law. But he should be treated like any other lawbreaker. And today, he has been,” Schiff wrote.
“The chaos of Trump continues,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) wrote on Twitter. “What he’s doing to this country, the extremism and danger he and his allies present, has to end.”
The Road Ahead
Many legal experts believe the Trump defense team will attempt to draw out the proceedings as long as possible.
For Trump, the 2024 campaign continues. Even if convicted of the charges, no law prevents him from running for or winning the presidency.
Janice Hisle, Jackson Richman, and Joseph Lord contributed to this report.