Donald Trump entered a not guilty plea to dozens of felony counts in a Miami courthouse on Tuesday, making history as the first former president to appear in front of a judge on federal charges. He was charged with stockpiling sensitive papers and defying government requests to turn them over.
The historic court hearing, which centered on allegations that Trump failed to protect national security secrets as commander in chief, marks the beginning of a legal process that could take place during the height of the 2024 election cycle and have significant ramifications for both his political future and personal freedom.
Trump arrived at his arraignment with the bravado that has come to define him. While traveling to the courthouse in his motorcade, he posted social media rebuttals to the prosecution and insisted, as he has throughout years of legal troubles, that he has done nothing wrong and is being persecuted for political reasons. But during his brief arraignment, which didn’t require him to give up his passport or otherwise be restricted from traveling, he sat in silence inside the courthouse with his arms crossed, a frown on his face, and a not guilty plea made on his behalf.
The arraignment, though largely procedural in nature, was the latest in an unprecedented public reckoning this year for Trump. He is accused in New York of receiving hush money during his 2016 campaign and is also the subject of ongoing investigations into his possible involvement in efforts to rig the 2020 election in Atlanta and Washington.
By calling the Justice Department special counsel who brought the case “a Trump hater,” promising to stay in the race, and booking a speech and fundraiser for Tuesday night at his Bedminster, New Jersey, club, he has attempted to project confidence in the face of unmistakable legal jeopardy. On his way out of Miami, he stopped at Versailles, a famous Cuban restaurant in the Little Havana section of the city, where supporters sang “Happy Birthday” to Trump, who will turn 77 on Wednesday.
Even so, it was obvious how serious the situation was.
No past president had ever faced charges from the Justice Department, much less been accused of handling top-secret information, until last week.
The indictment, which was unsealed last week, accused Trump of illegally storing classified documents at Mar-a-Lago in his bedroom, bathroom, shower, and other locations while also attempting to conceal them from the Justice Department when they demanded their return. He was accused of doing this on 37 felony counts, many of which fell under the Espionage Act. If found guilty, the charges involve a lengthy prison sentence.
Trump has resorted to a tried-and-true strategy of portraying himself as the target of political persecution. To protect the department from political criticism, however, Attorney General Merrick Garland, a choice of President Joe Biden, gave the matter to a special counsel named Jack Smith, who said on Friday, “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
Tuesday’s arraignment was attended by Smith, who sat in the first row behind his prosecution team.
The court hearing took place against the backdrop of prospective demonstrations, with some well-known supporters using abrasive language to express support. Trump personally urged fans to participate in the scheduled demonstration at the courthouse on Tuesday. Despite claims by city officials that they were ready for potential unrest near the courtroom, there were little indications of a serious disruption.
Trump was told not to have any personal contact with any of the witnesses in the case, even though he was not asked to turn in his passport because, according to prosecutor David Harbach, he was not seen as a flight risk.
Included in this is Walt Nauta, his valet and personal assistant, who was charged last week with moving boxes of paperwork under Trump’s orders and lying to the FBI about it. Due to the absence of a local attorney, he did not enter a plea on Tuesday.
Trump was instructed not to discuss the matter with any witnesses, including Nauta, by the magistrate judge who presided over the arraignment, but he was allowed to talk about his job.
The papers case had long stood out due to the volume of evidence that prosecutors seemed to accumulate as well as the seriousness of the charges, even for a man whose post-presidential life had been defined by criminal probes.
Though the Justice Department filed it in Florida, the state where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property is situated and where many of the alleged acts of obstruction are said to have taken place, a federal grand jury in Washington had heard testimony there for months. Aileen Cannon, a District Court judge he chose, will continue hearing the case even though Trump appeared before a federal magistrate on Tuesday. Cannon decided in Trump’s favour last year in a debate over whether an outside special master could be appointed to evaluate the stolen sensitive information. In the end, her decision was rejected by a federal appeals tribunal.
What defences Trump will likely raise as the lawsuit develops is unknown. The notes and memories of another attorney, M. Evan Corcoran, are frequently quoted throughout the 49-page criminal complaint, suggesting prosecutors view him as a potential important witness. Two of his lead attorneys announced their retirement the morning after his indictment.
A 37-count charge against Trump was unsealed by the Justice Department on Friday, 31 of which were related to the deliberate retention of information about national defence. False statements and conspiring to cause obstruction are further allegations.
The indictment claims that after leaving office in January 2021, Trump brought hundreds of sensitive documents with him from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and purposefully kept them there. Prosecutors allege that the man kept information about nuclear projects, the military prowess of the United States and other countries, and a Pentagon “attack plan” among other things in a bathroom, ballroom, bedroom, and shower.
Additionally, according to the prosecution, he attempted to thwart government efforts to retrieve the documents, including by ordering his co-defendant Walt Nauta to move boxes to hide them and advising his own attorney to hide or destroy documents that were the subject of a Justice Department subpoena.