July 24, 2024

© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump arrives for his court appearance in New York in early April after being indicted in a case separate from E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against him. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Former president Donald Trump stashed sensitive intelligence secrets in a bathroom, his bedroom and a ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, according to a scathing 49-page indictment unsealed Friday against him and a loyal servant who is accused of lying to cover up his boss’s alleged crimes.

The grand jury indictment tells a story of hubris and hypocrisy, describing a wealthy former president living among neck-high stacks of boxes with classified documents scattered inside them, sometimes literally spilling out of their containers. In the prosecutors’ telling, neither Trump nor any of his aides or lawyers appeared bothered by the sprawl of sensitive papers until government agents came calling. Then, the former commander in chief allegedly set out to hide some of what he had.

The document, complete with color photographs and witness accounts of breathtaking criminal conduct, lays down a marker for a legal and political battle to come that could reshape the 2024 presidential race, the politics of national security, and the public’s perception of the Justice Department and the 45th president of the United States.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” Trump allegedly asked when his lawyers told him in May 2022 that they had to comply with a grand jury subpoena seeking the return of any documents marked classified. In that same conversation, he praised a lawyer for Hillary Clinton for what he claimed was the act of deleting 30,000 of her emails when she was in government.

“He did a great job,” Trump allegedly said.

Such private comments stand in stark contrast to Trump’s public statements as a 2016 candidate and as president about the importance of protecting classified information. As recounted in the indictment, Trump often used the issue as a rhetorical dagger against Clinton, declaring in September 2016 that “one of the first things we must do is enforce all classification rules and to enforce all laws relating to the handling of classified information.”

In total, Trump faces 37 separate counts, 31 of them for alleged willful retention of national defense information. Each of those 31 counts represents a different classified document he allegedly withheld — 21 that were discovered when the FBI searched the property last August, and 10 that were turned over to the FBI in a sealed envelope two months earlier.

Trump was not charged with a crime for every secret document he allegedly possessed, as prosecutors try to navigate the tricky legal and intelligence issues surrounding a public trial involving government secrets. He was not charged with mishandling any of the classified documents that he returned to the National Archives and Records Administration in early 2022 — a telling sign that if he had turned over what authorities had sought, the matter might never have been a criminal case.

Now, if convicted, Trump potentially faces decades in federal prison.

He is again running for president and currently leads a crowded field of Republican candidates.

The secret documents the FBI recovered from Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s home and private club in South Florida, included one about the “nuclear weaponry of the United States” and another describing the “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country,” according to the indictment. The indictment offers only broad descriptions of the sensitive topics: a White House intelligence briefing from 2018, communications with a foreign leader, documents concerning operations against U.S. forces and others from January and March 2020, and military activities and attacks by foreign countries.

“Our laws that protect national defense information are critical for the safety and security of the United States, and they must be enforced,” said special counsel Jack Smith, who was tapped in November to take charge of the politically fraught investigation and spoke publicly about it for the first time Friday afternoon, after the indictment was unsealed. “Violations of those laws put our country at risk.”

Trump, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, preempted the unsealing of the indictment by announcing it himself Thursday night. He attacked Smith on social media Friday, calling him a “deranged ‘psycho’ that shouldn’t be involved in any case having to do with ‘Justice.’”

Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor, struck a far more sober tone, telling reporters, “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”

Smith’s full statement on Trump’s indictment

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The charges were filed in Miami federal court, where Trump and his longtime valet, Waltine “Walt” Nauta, are expected to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to the willful-retention charges Trump faces, he and Nauta are jointly charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document, concealing a document and scheming to conceal. They are separately charged with making false statements or causing false statements to be made to authorities.

A lawyer for Nauta, who faces six counts in all, declined to comment.

Smith signaled that prosecutors would try to move quickly to bring the case to trial.

The timing will be critical, because Trump faces a March trial in Manhattan in an unrelated case in which he is accused of arranging illegal hush money payments to women during his 2016 presidential campaign. Separately, state prosecutors in Georgia are considering filing charges this summer over Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election result, and Smith is investigating those efforts on the federal level. And any trial in mid-2024 could crash up against the major parties’ nominating conventions.

While much of the Justice Department’s classified documents investigation was conducted through a federal grand jury in Washington, authorities ultimately decided to bring the case in South Florida. The decision was due to concerns about legal precedents involving the proper place to charge the alleged crimes, given that so much of the activity took place in the Sunshine State.

The case has been initially assigned to U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump-nominated judge who played a key role in an early stage of the investigation. She appointed a special master to examine some of the material the FBI had seized from Mar-a-Lago, delaying the Justice Department’s access to some of the evidence. But Cannon’s ruling was eventually reversed on appeal.

Shortly before the indictment was unsealed Friday, Trump announced he was losing his two key lawyers on the case, who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Justice Department not to bring charges. The former president said he would soon hire new lawyers to help him and that one of the attorneys representing him in the New York case, Todd Blanche, would take a lead role in the Miami defense too.

Trump accused prosecutors of trying to “destroy” Nauta’s life in hopes that “he will say bad things about ‘Trump.’”

Read the full text of the Trump indictment in classified documents case

The charging document makes clear that plenty of witnesses shared with prosecutors damning accounts of the former president’s handling of classified papers after he was out of office, and that much of the security risks posed by Trump’s behavior stemmed from a combination of sloppiness and showing off.

In December 2021, authorities said, Nauta found that several of Trump’s boxes had fallen and the classified documents inside had spilled onto the floor of a storage room, clearly visible. “I opened the door and found this,” Nauta allegedly texted another Trump employee, sharing a photo of the mess.

Earlier that year, Trump ordered some of his boxes to be brought to his home at the Bedminster Club in New Jersey. In one interview there, he allegedly bragged about having a sensitive document about Iran. “I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up,” Trump told a person who was there working on a book. “Secret. This is secret information. … See as president I could have declassified it. … Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

The Take: Trump indictment a moment of reckoning for the former president

Around the same time, Trump allegedly met in his Bedminster office with a representative of his political action committee and showed the person “a classified map” of a foreign country, which the indictment does not identify. Trump told the person “he should not be showing the map” and “to not get too close.” The indictment did not name the person who was shown the map but did say he did not have a security clearance.

Karl Schmae, a former FBI agent who also spent years inspecting military facilities to ensure they were handling classified material correctly, called the allegations in the indictment “just beyond the pale. This behavior is so reckless, so irresponsible, it really puts at risk the national security of the United States.”

The indictment offers the fullest timeline of the investigation, and how Trump and those around him reacted in the face of increasing government demands to turn over papers, beginning with requests from the National Archives in 2021.

In early 2022, after months of requests, Trump provided 15 boxes of papers to the Archives. When government archivists opened the boxes, they found 197 documents with classification markings, of which 98 were marked secret, 30 were marked top secret and the rest were at the lowest classification level, confidential.

That ultimately led to a May grand jury subpoena demanding the return of all documents with classified markings. When they received that subpoena, prosecutors allege, Trump and his valet made a concerted effort to hide boxes of documents from the government.

Between May 23 and June 2, Nauta moved 64 boxes from the storage room and brought them to Trump’s residence, the indictment says. On the morning of June 2, phone records allegedly show that Trump called Nauta, a call that lasted less than a minute. Nauta allegedly moved 30 boxes back to the storage room — roughly half of what he’d previously taken from the room.

Days earlier, Nauta allegedly texted about the boxes with a female relative of Trump, who is not named in the indictment. “I think he wanted to pick from them,” Nauta tells her. “… He told me to put them in the room and that he was going to talk to you about them.”

The movement of the boxes on June 2 is a critical moment in the saga because the next day, a federal prosecutor and FBI agents visited Mar-a-Lago to retrieve material in response to the subpoena. They were handed a folder with more than three dozen classified documents.

Even then, Trump allegedly suggested to his own lawyer that they withhold material sought by the subpoena, the indictment says, citing an account provided by a person identified as “Attorney 1.”

That lawyer, who was identified by a person familiar with the case as Evan Corcoran, described Trump making a “plucking” motion with his hand.

“He made a funny motion as though — well okay why don’t you take them with you to your hotel room and if there’s anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out,” the attorney is quoted as saying. “And that was the motion he made. He didn’t say that.”

Neither Nauta nor Trump told Trump’s attorneys that nearly three dozen boxes had been moved to Trump’s residential quarters and not returned to the Mar-a-Lago storage room, which was the only place Corcoran searched for classified documents in response to the subpoena. Trump’s representatives later told prosecutors in a sworn statement that they had conducted a diligent search and produced every document responsive to the subpoena. Those claims, authorities now charge, were lies pushed by Trump.

The indictment charges that as much as Trump and Nauta tried to conceal, they repeatedly failed to cover their tracks.

When FBI agents interviewed Nauta in late May, he denied moving boxes for his boss, which they charge was a lie.

Shayna Jacobs and Jess Swanson in Miami and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.