MIAMI — Donald Trump has been indicted on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate, a remarkable development that makes him the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges by the federal government that he once oversaw.
The Justice Department was expected to make public a seven-count indictment ahead of a historic court appearance next week in the midst of a 2024 presidential campaign punctuated by criminal prosecutions in multiple states.
The indictment carries unmistakably grave legal consequences, including the possibility of prison if Trump’s convicted.
But it also has enormous political implications, potentially upending a Republican presidential primary that Trump had been dominating and testing anew the willingness of GOP voters and party leaders to stick with a now twice-indicted candidate who could face still more charges. And it sets the stage for a sensational trial centered on claims that a man once entrusted to safeguard the nation’s most closely guarded secrets willfully, and illegally, hoarded sensitive national security information.
The Justice Department did not immediately confirm the indictment publicly. But two people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to discuss it publicly said that the indictment included seven criminal counts. One of those people said Trump’s lawyers were contacted by prosecutors shortly before he announced Thursday on his Truth Social platform that he had been indicted.
Within minutes of his announcement, Trump, who said he was due in court Tuesday afternoon in Miami, began fundraising off it for his presidential campaign. He declared his innocence in a video and repeated his familiar refrain that the investigation is a “witch hunt.”
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 faces, 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.
Appearing Thursday night on CNN, Trump attorney James Trusty said the indictment includes charges of willful retention of national defense information – a crime under the Espionage Act, which polices the handling of government secrets – obstruction, false statements and conspiracy.
The inquiry took a major step forward last November when Attorney General Merrick Garland, a soft-spoken former federal judge who has long stated that no one person should be regarded as above the law, appointed Jack Smith, a war crimes prosecutor with an aggressive, hard-charging reputation to lead both the documents probe as well as a separate investigation into efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
The 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.
The indictment arises from a monthslong investigation into whether Trump broke the law by holding onto hundreds of documents marked classified at his Palm Beach property, Mar-a-Lago, and whether Trump took steps to obstruct the government’s efforts to recover the records.
Prosecutors have said that Trump took roughly 300 classified documents to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House, including some 100 that were seized by the FBI last August in a search of the home that underscored the gravity of the Justice Department’s investigation. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he was entitled to keep the classified documents when he left the White House, and has also claimed without evidence that he had declassified them.
Court records unsealed last year showed federal investigators believed they had probable cause that multiple crimes had been committed, including the retention of national defense information, destruction of government records and obstruction.
Since then, the Justice Department has amassed additional evidence and secured grand jury testimony from people close to Trump, including his own lawyers. The statutes governing the handling of classified records and obstruction are felonies that could carry years in prison in the event of a conviction.
Even so, it remains unclear how much it will damage Trump’s standing given that his first indictment generated millions of dollars in contributions from angry supporters and didn’t weaken him in the polls.
The former president has long sought to use his legal troubles to his political advantage, complaining on social media and at public events that the cases are being driven by Democratic prosecutors out to hurt his 2024 election campaign. He is likely to rely on that playbook again, reviving his longstanding claims that the Justice Department – which, during his presidency, investigated whether his 2016 campaign had colluded with Russia – is somehow weaponized against him.
Trump’s legal troubles extend beyond the New York indictment and classified documents case.
Smith is separately investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. And the district attorney in Georgia’s Fulton County is investigating Trump over alleged efforts to subvert the 2020 election in that state.
Signs had mounted for weeks that an indictment was near, including a Monday meeting between Trump’s lawyers and Justice Department officials. His lawyers had also recently been notified that he was the target of the investigation, the clearest sign yet that an indictment was looming.
Though the bulk of the investigative work had been handled in Washington, with a grand jury meeting there for months, it recently emerged that prosecutors were presenting evidence before a separate panel in Florida, where many of the alleged acts of obstruction scrutinized by prosecutors took place.
The Justice Department has said Trump repeatedly resisted efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration to get the documents back. After months of back-and-forth, Trump representatives returned 15 boxes of records in January 2022, including about 184 documents that officials said had classified markings on them.
FBI and Justice Department investigators issued a subpoena in May 2022 for classified documents that remained in Trump’s possession. But after a Trump lawyer provided three dozen records and asserted that a diligent search of the property had been done, officials came to suspect even more documents remained.
The investigation had simmered for months before bursting into front-page news in remarkable fashion last August. That’s when FBI agents served a search warrant on Mar-a-Lago and removed 33 boxes containing classified records, including top-secret documents stashed in a storage room and desk drawer and commingled with personal belongings. Some records were so sensitive that investigators needed upgraded security clearances to review them, the Justice Department has said.
The investigation into Trump had appeared complicated – politically, if not legally – by the discovery of documents with classified markings in the Delaware home and former Washington office of President Joe Biden, as well as in the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence. The Justice Department recently informed Pence that he would not face charges, while a second special counsel continues to investigate Biden’s handling of classified documents.
But compared with Trump, there are key differences in the facts and legal issues surrounding Biden’s and Pence’s handling of documents, including that representatives for both men say the documents were voluntarily turned over to investigators as soon as they were found. In contrast, investigators quickly zeroed on whether Trump, who for four years as president expressed disdain for the FBI and Justice Department, had sought to obstruct the inquiry by refusing to turn over all the requested documents.
ABC’s Aaron Katersky explains what’s next for former President Trump: