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The indictment of a former president

A serious moment and a serious charge

Former President Donald Trump Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall, file

The indictment of a former president

Special counsel Jack Smith, appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, has now indicted former President Donald Trump on a number of charges related to Trump’s handling of classified documents. Regardless of the merits of the case, the allegations against Trump raise deeply disturbing issues that cast doubt on the former president’s fitness for future office as much as President Joe Biden’s age and missteps cast doubt on his own candidacy.

The New York City case filed by District Attorney Alvin Bragg is a farce wrapped in a bad joke of prosecutorial abuse. The federal case in Miami, on the other hand, contains substantial documentation alleging President Trump revealed classified information to people not allowed to see it and also hid documents from the federal government and his own lawyers. The case was filed in the Southern District of Florida because the prosecution claims the bulk of the crimes occurred at Mar-a-Lago.

According to the prosecution, Trump kept highly classified, top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago after he left office. The documents include but are not limited to American and foreign government nuclear weapons assessments, information that would compromise the secret locations of American soldiers, information that would compromise the identities and locations of American spies, documents assessing American military and geographical vulnerabilities in the event of attacks, similar assessments for key allies and opponents, and documents and maps related to a planned invasion of at least one country.

In 2019, a federal court found a Chinese businesswoman guilty of trespassing at Mar-a-Lago with equipment designed to spy on Trump’s administration. Notwithstanding that, prosecutors allege Trump piled documents, including classified documents, on a stage in a publicly accessible ballroom and in other unsecured locations, including a bathroom. In at least one instance, boxes toppled over spilling out highly classified information—information only allowed to be seen by the spy chiefs and executive leaders of the United States and four of our allies.

According to prosecutors, in January 2022, the National Archives demanded Trump hand over all classified documents in his possession. Trump sent them 197 documents. Six months later in June, a federal grand jury demanded Trump hand over every other classified document he had. Trump sent the grand jury 38 more documents. Subsequently, when the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, it found another 102 classified documents. In other words, Trump withheld classified documents from the federal grand jury.

Regardless of one’s view of a former president keeping classified documents, refusing to surrender them when a grand jury requested them is a serious allegation.

Making matters worse, the prosecutors allege Trump instructed his valet, Walt Nauta, to move classified documents to avoid Trump’s lawyers finding them as they searched for the classified documents. Nauta has also been indicted and Trump’s lawyer informed prosecutors that Trump asked the lawyer to keep documents from the FBI.

Regardless of one’s view of a former president keeping classified documents, refusing to surrender them when a grand jury requested them is a serious allegation. Trump’s supporters have argued that merely taking the documents to Mar-a-Lago meant Trump had declassified them. This is problematic because the federal government has a procedure that must be followed, which he did not. But Trump’s supporters argue the procedure does not matter because Trump was president and his actions serve to declassify the documents.

Prosecutors document that in July 2021, at his New Jersey golf course, Trump showed multiple people without security clearances a “plan of attack” on an undisclosed country. Prosecutors have an audio recording of the incident. On the recording, Trump says the document is “highly classified” and “as president I could have declassified it.” He continued, “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still secret.” It implied Trump both knew the proper procedure to declassify documents, did not declassify this particular “plan of attack,” and knew the document was still classified.

Later in 2021, Trump is alleged to have shown a political operative a document related to a classified military operation and told the person the document was secret and the person should only view it from a distance because Trump knew he should not be showing it to the person. Both the former and later incidents suggest Trump knew he should not be doing what he was doing but did it anyway.

Special counsel Jack Smith presents a compelling indictment complete with photos and audio recordings to back up his claims. The cavalier storage and display of national security secrets that put our sons and daughters serving our military in harm’s way are deeply troubling. Partisans can argue about the merits of the prosecution, but if the allegations hold up, Trump did commit a crime. Likewise, his poor judgment risked the lives of our soldiers and spies. His regular lack of impulse control is an issue his rivals will raise in the town square even as prosecutors pursue the matter in a court of law.

One other matter hangs over the entire scandal. The Department of Justice must explain, credibly and straightforwardly, how the Trump case differs from the investigations into misuse and improper storage of classified documents by Hillary Clinton and President Biden. Failure to be transparent about these questions will only serve to undermine the credibility of the charges against Trump in the eyes of many citizens. Too much is at stake here, and every move now matters.

Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson is a lawyer by training, has been a political campaign manager and consultant, helped start one of the premiere grassroots conservative websites in the world, served as a political contributor for CNN and Fox News, and hosts the Erick Erickson Show broadcast nationwide.

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