Not the crime but the cover-up
The Justice Department made clear in a legal filing Tuesday night that its early-stage criminal investigation of former President Donald Trump's handling of government documents "is not simply about efforts to recover improperly retained presidential records." The warrant to search Trump's Mar-a-Lago beachfront club for classified documents cites a section of the Espionage Act and laws on mishandling government records, but Tuesday's filing focused on evidence of efforts "likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation."
If Trump had returned all the requested files to the National Archives — classified or otherwise — in January, that would have been the end of the story, legal experts assess. But with its evidence of obstructing justice, Tuesday's filing reads "at times like a road map for a potential prosecution down the road," The New York Times reports.
"The allegation does not necessarily mean that Trump or anyone else will ultimately face charges," The Associated Press notes. "But it could pose the most direct legal threat to Trump or those in his orbit, in part because the Justice Department has historically viewed obstruction as an aggravating factor that tilts in favor of bringing charges in investigations involving the mishandling of classified information."
When FBI Director James Comey announced in July 2016 that the FBI would not recommend "criminal charges against Hillary Clinton in an investigation involving handling of her emails," for example, he "cited the absence of obstruction as one of the reasons," AP reports. But when the DOJ "charged former CIA Director David Petraeus in 2015 with sharing classified information with his biographer, it made a point of including in court documents details about false statements prosecutors said he made during an FBI interview."
Trump lawyers Evan Corcoran and Cristina Bobb are in "enormous legal peril" with the obstruction evidence, The Washington Post reports. Some "key questions that could determine Trump's legal fate" include whether he directed "Corcoran and Bobb to mislead the government" about the files, "and, if so, why did he want to keep reams of top-secret classified documents there?"
On the other hand, Trump is fortunate that prosecutors would want compelling evidence of a significant crime to charge a former president, former U.S. attorney and FBI official Chuck Rosenberg told the Post. "I don't imagine you would charge any former president with a relatively minor crime," like mutilation of documents.