Ron DeSantis: ‘I would’ve been court-martialed for taking classified documents’

Ron DeSantis says he would have expected tough punishment had he taken classified documents while in the navy - Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Ron DeSantis says he would have expected tough punishment had he taken classified documents while in the navy - Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Ron DeSantis suggested he would have been “court-martialed in a New York minute” if he had kept classified documents while in the Navy, in a veiled attack on Donald Trump.

The Florida governor, 44, has been careful to walk a delicate line as he challenges Mr Trump for the Republican party’s 2024 presidential nomination, as he is wary of alienating the former president’s base.

Mr DeSantis initially expressed outrage at the Justice Department’s decision to charge the 76-year-old former president with illegally keeping top-secret files after he left the White House.

But in remarks on Friday night, Mr DeSantis implicitly stressed the gravity of his rival’s alleged crimes, even as he condemned the “weaponisation” of the justice system.

“As a naval officer, if I would’ve taken classified [documents] to my apartment, I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute,” he told a Republican Party convention in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The governor was ostensibly discussing a case involving Hillary Clinton, who was investigated by the FBI over her use of a private email server at her New York home for work purposes while she was secretary of state.

The FBI said Mrs Clinton had been “careless” but did not recommend charges.

“Is there a different standard for a Democrat secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” he said.

But Mr DeSantis’s suggestion of wrongdoing in Mrs Clinton’s case and the implicit parallels he drew with Mr Trump was a back-handed defence of his rival.

The governor also suggested Mr Trump should have “some humility” in tackling a politicised judicial system, adding: “You cannot do it alone.”

Mr Trump, who remains the GOP frontrunner, was due to address Republicans at state conventions in Georgia and North Carolina on Saturday

He is expected to give a furious response to prosecutors and the FBI as he paints himself as a victim of a politicised Justice Department.

He is facing 37 counts relating to the illegal retention of highly sensitive documents, including details of America’s nuclear weapons and foreign allies.

The indictment of a sitting or former US president on federal charges is unprecedented in American history.

Stacks of boxes containing secret documents were found at Mar-a-Lago - US Department of Justice via Getty Images
Stacks of boxes containing secret documents were found at Mar-a-Lago - US Department of Justice via Getty Images

Mr Trump’s allies have launched a pressure campaign to push his Republican rivals to condemn his prosecution.

Many have done so, wary of alienating his supporters. Alongside Mr DeSantis, they include Mike Pence, the former vice-president; Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador; and Tim Scott, the senator.

However, all have drawn short of defending Mr Trump’s actions, as the full details of his handling of sensitive US intelligence were laid bare in a 49-page indictment.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and another GOP candidate, said the facts of the case were “damning”.

Photographs in the document showed dozens of boxes of files were found at Mar-a-Lago, Mr Trump’s private members’ club and main residence in Florida.

They were discovered next to a shower, on a ballroom stage, and in his office and bedroom.

Some documents spilled on the floor of a storage room pertained to intelligence “releasable only to the Five Eyes”, the intelligence-sharing network between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

According to prosecutors, the documents included details of “nuclear weaponry in the United States” and the “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country”.

It also included information of “potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack”.

Prosecutors said Mr Trump attempted to “conceal his continued retention of classified documents” after he was issued a subpoena demanding their return.

He allegedly directed Walt Nauta, his valet, to move documents so they would be hidden from his own lawyer and the FBI.

The former president was charged with 31 counts under the Espionage Act of “willful retention of national defence information”.

He also faces six other charges including concealing documents, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

It could result in a substantial prison sentence. Mr Nauta has also been charged in the case.

Joe Biden, the US president, said he had not spoken to the Justice Department about the case and had no forewarning of Mr Trump’s indictment.

Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing, saying: “I am an innocent man.”

He will plead not guilty when he appears in court in Miami on Tuesday, and has encouraged his supporters to assemble outside.

He wrote on his social media platform: “SEE YOU IN MIAMI ON TUESDAY!!!”

The political impact of Mr Trump’s latest indictment is not yet clear.

A YouGov poll last month found that a majority of Democrats and independent voters deemed removing highly classified documents and obstructing their return to be a serious crime. Some 42 per cent of Republicans agreed.

However, Mr Trump’s aides said they expected to raise millions of dollars from angry voters who feel he has been treated unfairly.

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