Donald Trump in the dock: a fraught moment for US democracy

There is speculation that former president could end up running his 2024 election campaign from behind bars

Donald Trump delivers remarks outside the clubhouse at the Trump National Golf Club
The indictment outlines the efforts Trump had made to conceal his possession of the documents
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

In the past few years, Donald Trump has notched up a series of disgraceful firsts, said Ahmed Baba in The Independent. He is the first US president to have been impeached twice; the first to have been found liable for a sexual assault, in a civil case; and the first to have faced state criminal charges.

Now, he has achieved the distinction of becoming the first to appear in court to answer federal criminal charges. Unsealed last week, the indictment is the culmination of a 16-month investigation by independent Special Counsel Jack Smith into Trump’s removal of hundreds of classified documents from the White House when he left office in January 2021.These documents were found at his Mar-a-Lago estate last August by FBI investigators who’d obtained a search warrant to retrieve them. Thirty-one of the 37 charges relate to violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, each of which carries a lengthy maximum jail term, raising speculation that Trump could end up running his 2024 election campaign from behind bars.

‘Stunning allegations’

The allegations are “stunning”, said The Economist. At the time of the FBI raid, the former president’s lawyers insisted that the documents – which are said to have contained details of the US’s nuclear weaponry, and of the potential vulnerabilities of the US and its allies to attack – had been stored securely. In fact, they were found strewn haphazardly in various corners of his Florida mansion: cardboard boxes had been piled high in a bedroom, a bathroom, and even on the stage of a ballroom where, the indictment notes, “events and gatherings took place”.

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Moreover, prosecutors have also obtained an audio recording in which Trump can be heard telling a group of guests and aides that a particular Pentagon file (apparently related to a potential attack on Iran) is “highly confidential, secret”, suggesting that he’d kept (and perhaps also shared) documents that he knew to be classified. He goes on to say that “as president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t”, which is at odds with a key plank of his defence – that as president, he had already declassified them all (something he said he had the power to do just by “thinking about it”).

The indictment also outlines the efforts Trump had made to conceal his possession of the documents, said The New York Times. At one point, he’d suggested that his lawyer might take the boxes to his hotel and “pluck out” anything really bad. He’d asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we had nothing?” But far from distancing themselves from an ex-president who appears to have played so fast and loose with America’s secrets, Republicans have rallied around Trump “with renewed zeal”, said David Smith in The Guardian. They’ve falsely asserted that Joe Biden controls the justice department; tried to turn the tables by accusing Biden of involvement in a bribery scandal; and raised the spectre of an armed uprising.

‘His own worst enemy’

Trump, meanwhile, has branded it the “boxes hoax”, and is talking about a witch-hunt. Yet his own former attorney general, William Barr, has said the counts are “solid”, and warned that if even only half of them are proven, he’ll be “toast”. Not for the first time, Trump has been his own worst enemy, said The Wall Street Journal. This case would never have been brought had he simply returned the documents (as Biden did, when boxes of papers were found in his garage) instead of holding onto them, and allegedly tasking an aide with hiding them.

Even so, this does not absolve the justice department of its very grave decision to use the prosecutorial power of the federal government against a “former president who is also running against the sitting president”. Jack Smith may be an independent counsel, but he was appointed as “political cover” by the attorney general, Merrick Garland, who answers to Joe Biden. This is a fraught moment for US democracy.

‘Misguided sense of entitlement’

No one should be above the law, said Gary Abernathy in The Washington Post. And according to a strict interpretation of it, the charges against Trump are not unreasonable. But prosecutors have to consider the wider context, and to charge a former president under the Espionage Act, you really ought to have more than there is in this indictment: evidence that, say, he had planned to pass the files to an enemy power, or use them as leverage in a deal.

There is no suggestion that Trump intended to harm his country; he kept these papers not for malign purposes, but out of a “misguided sense of entitlement”. His “hubristic handling of classified material” is another reason for Republicans not to select him as their standard bearer; but his fate should be decided by the voters, not the justice department or the courts.

“Based on what we now know, the underlying offence does not warrant the national upheaval” that will come from charging “the likely 2024 Republican nominee”.

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