Donald Trump’s bid for a White House comeback was rocked today by an indictment bombshell on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate.
The legal move would make him the first former president in US history to face criminal charges by the federal government that he once oversaw. But rather than pull out of the race to become the Republican candidate, Mr Trump went on the offensive with an angry swagger, announcing the indictment on his Truth Social platform, and protesting: “I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!”.
The justice department was expected to make public a seven-count indictment ahead of an historic court appearance next week amid the 2024 presidential campaign.
The indictment carries the possibility of prison if Mr Trump is convicted. It also unleashed a fresh political storm as Mr Trump has been way ahead of other contenders to become the Republican candidate to take on Joe Biden in the presidential election.
It also set the stage for a sensational trial centred on claims that the then president, once entrusted to safeguard the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, “wilfully, and illegally”, hoarded sensitive national security information at his Mar-a-Lago estate after he left office.
Mr Trump has already been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in an historic case over allegations he orchestrated hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 election. He denies any wrongdoing.
Mr Trump and his allies are also being investigated over alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the district attorney in Georgia’s Fulton County is investigating him over alleged efforts to subvert the poll in that state.
But among the various investigations he faces, legal experts, as well as Mr Trump’s own aides, had long seen the Mar-a-Lago inquiry as the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution.
The indictment arises from a months-long investigation into whether Mr Trump broke the law by holding onto hundreds of documents marked classified at his Palm Beach property and whether he took steps to obstruct the government’s efforts to recover the records.
Prosecutors claim that Mr Trump took around 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. Mr 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 grounds that multiple crimes had been committed, including the retention of national defence 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 Mr Trump, including his own lawyers. The statutes governing the handling of classified records and obstruction are felonies that could carry years in prison if convicted.
The department did not immediately confirm the indictment publicly but it was said to include seven criminal counts. Within minutes of his announcement Mr Trump, who said he was due in court on Tuesday afternoon in Miami, began fundraising off it for his presidential campaign.
Appearing last night on CNN, Trump attorney Jim Trusty said the indictment included charges of wilful retention of national defence 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 appointed Jack Smith, a war crimes prosecutor with an aggressive, hard-charging reputation to lead both the documents inquiry as well as a separate investigation into alleged efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
The case is a milestone for a justice department that had investigated Mr 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 inquiry cited justice department policy against indicting a sitting president.
Once he left office, though, he lost that protection. It still remains unclear how much it will damage Mr 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.
Many of his challengers for the Republican nomination jumped to his defence. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Mr Trump’s top rival for the 2024 nomination, 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 department had been “so zealous” in bringing charges against Mr Trump and “so passive” about going after former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Amid the turmoil Democrats are also increasingly concerned about Joe Biden’s age, especially after the 80-year-old fell at an awards event.