Sun, 01 Oct 2023

The Trump Documents Case: Why It Matters

Voice of America
09 Jun 2023, 16:05 GMT+10

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has confirmed on his social media platform that his lawyers were informed by the Justice Department that he had been indicted and summoned to appear in federal court in Miami on Tuesday.

The indictment remains under seal, but CNN, citing a source familiar with the matter, said it contains several criminal charges related to his handling of government documents after leaving the White House.

The indictment makes Trump the first former U.S. president to be charged in federal court. Here are seven questions about the case.

Why was Trump being investigated?

The Justice Department has been investigating Trump since early 2022 after learning that he had stashed hundreds of sensitive government documents at his Florida resort and had thwarted efforts to retrieve them.

Under U.S. law, presidential records belong to the government and must be handed over to the National Archives when a president leaves office.

But Trump allegedly took hundreds of records from the White House and had them shipped to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort and residence.

The National Archives demanded the documents from Trump's representatives in 2021 but received only 14 boxes in January 2022. They contained more than 100 classified documents.

Alarmed at the finding of government secrets, the National Archives subsequently reported the discovery to the Justice Department, triggering a federal investigation.

Though Trump later returned several dozen more documents, he was suspected of holding on to even more. That led the FBI to execute a search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022. The highly publicized search led to the discovery of more than 100 classified documents.

What is in the documents?

In all, prosecutors have retrieved more than 300 classified government documents from Trump. The documents bear various classification markings, from confidential and secret to top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information, the highest level of classification.

The government has kept the content of the classified records under wraps, but in court documents, prosecutors have said their mishandling could endanger U.S. national security.

The documents originate from different agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, and cover a broad spectrum of national security topics, such as China and Iran's missile program.

What charges does Trump face?

The indictment has not been unsealed, but the FBI search warrant listed three statutes that may have been breached.

The first is part of the Espionage Act and prohibits the unauthorized transmission or retention of 'national defense information' such as classified government documents.

Another statute concerns obstruction of a federal investigation by destroying, altering and falsifying records.

Violations of the two statutes are punishable by as much as 10 to 20 years in prison.

Who is leading the investigation?

The investigation was led through most of last year by the Justice Department. But Trump's announcement in November that he was running for president prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint Jack Smith, a former career Justice Department prosecutor, as special counsel.

Smith has been using two grand juries in recent months - one in Washington and another in Miami - to subpoena witnesses and documents related to the case. Several dozen witnesses have appeared before the two panels.

The grand juries operate in secrecy.

Smith is also investigating Trump in connection with the events that led to the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

What has Trump said publicly about the case?

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the documents, calling the investigation a 'witch hunt' designed to sabotage his bid for reelection.

He also claimed that he had a 'standing order' to declassify all documents taken from the Oval Office to the White House residence.

But prosecutors have reportedly obtained a 2021 audio recording in which Trump acknowledged he had retained a classified Pentagon document, which contradicts his claim that he had declassified all documents.

What would an indictment mean for Trump's presidential run?

No laws can stop him from forging ahead with his presidential campaign, even as he faces an indictment.

In fact, former prosecutor John Malcolm said there are no laws that would prevent him from running, even if he is convicted.

'There have been people who have run for office from prison cells,' Malcolm said.

In 2002, former Representative Jim Traficant ran for his old congressional seat while serving a prison sentence for corruption.

How do the Trump and Biden document cases compare?

Complicating Smith's case against Trump was the discovery of classified documents in President Joe Biden's possession, and former Vice President Mike Pence's possession as well.

But in some respects, the cases are different. The documents found in Biden's and Pence's possession were small in number and both officials, unlike Trump, turned them over to the Justice Department as soon as they were found.

Last week, federal prosecutors informed Pence that they had closed their investigation and would not bring any charges against him.

The Biden investigation, led by another former federal prosecutor, is ongoing.

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