By Sarah N. Lynch and Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. prosecutors unsealed a 37-count indictment against Donald Trump on Friday, accusing the former president of risking some of the country’s most sensitive security secrets after leaving the White House in 2021.
Trump mishandled classified documents that included information about the secretive U.S. nuclear program and potential domestic vulnerabilities in the event of an attack, the federal indictment said.
Trump also discussed with lawyers the possibility of lying to government officials seeking to recover the documents; stored some of the documents around a toilet, and moved boxes of them around his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort home to prevent them from being found, the charges said.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” Trump said to one of his attorneys, according to the 49-page indictment.
The Justice Department made the criminal charges public on a tumultuous day in which two of Trump’s lawyers quit the case. The indictment charges Trump with 37 counts. A former aide, Walt Nauta, faces charges in the case as well.
Trump is due to make a first court appearance in the case in a Miami court on Tuesday, a day before his 77th birthday. Since Trump would serve any sentences concurrently if convicted, the maximum prison time he faces is 20 years for obstruction of justice, which carries the highest penalty.
U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the prosecution, said in a brief statement: “Our laws that protect national defense information are critical to the safety and security of the United States, and they must be enforced.”
“We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everybody.” He said as with any defendant, those accused were presumed innocent until proven guilty and he pledged to seek a speedy trial before a jury of citizens in Florida.
Trump has proclaimed his innocence in the case. After the charges were unsealed, he attacked Smith on social media.
“He is a Trump Hater – a deranged ‘psycho’ that shouldn’t be involved in any case having to do with ‘Justice,'” he wrote on his Truth Social platform.
Materials came from the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, the indictment said.
One document concerned a foreign country’s support of terrorism against U.S. interests.
Prosecutors said Trump showed another person a Defense Department document described as a “plan of attack” against another country.
They said Trump conspired with Nauta to keep classified documents he had taken from the White House and hide them from a federal grand jury. Nauta, who worked for Trump at the White House and Mar-a-Lago, faces six counts in the case.
Nauta falsely told the FBI he did not know how some of the documents ended up in Trump’s suite at Mar-a-Lago, when in fact he had been involved in moving them there from a storage room, according to the indictment.
The indictment includes photographs of Trump’s boxes on a ballroom stage, in a club bathroom and in a storage room, where some were laying on the floor.
Trump kept the documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and his golf club in New Jersey. Mar-a-Lago hosted tens of thousands of guests at more than 150 events during the time they were there, the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors said the unauthorized disclosure of the classified documents could risk U.S. national security, foreign relations, and intelligence gathering.
The indictment of a former U.S. president on federal charges is unprecedented in American history and emerges at a time when Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Trump’s support has held steady through many lawsuits and scandals but the charges laid out against him on Friday could give his Republican rivals in the presidential race ammunition to attack his record, especially on national security.
Investigators seized roughly 13,000 documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, nearly a year ago. One hundred were marked as classified, even though one of Trump’s lawyers had previously said all records with classified markings had been returned to the government.
Trump has previously said he declassified those documents while president, but his attorneys have declined to make that argument in court filings.
TRUMP APPOINTEE AS JUDGE
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon has been initially assigned to oversee the case, a source who was briefed on the matter said on Friday. She could preside over the trial as well, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Cannon, appointed by Trump in 2019, made headlines last year when she decided in favor of the former U.S. president at a pivotal stage of the case and was later reversed on appeal.
Cannon would determine, among other things, when a trial would take place and what Trump’s sentence would be if he were found guilty.
It is the second criminal case for Trump, who is due to go on trial in New York next March in a state case stemming from a hush-money payment to a porn star.
If he wins the presidency again, Trump, as head of the federal government, would be in a position to derail the federal case, but not the state one in New York.
In an earlier post, Trump said he would be represented in the case by white collar defense lawyer Todd Blanche, who is representing him in a separate criminal case in Manhattan.
Trump made that announcement after his lawyers John Rowley and Jim Trusty quit the case for reasons that were not immediately clear.
Trump and his allies have portrayed the case as political retaliation by Democratic President Joe Biden, but Biden has kept his distance.
The White House said he did not find out about the indictment ahead of time, and he declined to comment when asked by reporters in North Carolina about the indictment.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has sought to minimize the perception of political interference by appointing Smith as special counsel, giving him a degree of independence from Justice Department leadership to head the prosecution.
The case does not prevent Trump from campaigning or taking office if he were to win the November 2024 presidential election. Legal experts say there would be no basis to block his swearing-in even if he were convicted and sent to prison.
POPULAR WITH REPUBLICANS
Trump’s legal woes have not dented his popularity with Republican voters, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. His main Republican rivals have so far lined up behind him to criticize the case as politically motivated.
Trump served as president from 2017 to 2021, and he has so far managed to weather controversies that might torpedo other politicians. He describes himself as the victim of a witch hunt and accuses the Justice Department of partisan bias.
Special Counsel Smith is leading a second criminal probe into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
Trump also faces a separate criminal probe in Georgia related to efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in that state.
Smith convened grand juries in both Washington and Miami to hear evidence, but has opted to bring the case in the politically competitive state of Florida, rather than the U.S. capital, where any jury would likely be heavily Democratic.
Under federal law, defendants have a right to be charged where the activity in question took place. A Florida prosecution, legal experts say, could head off a drawn-out legal challenge from Trump’s team over the proper venue.
The Republican state-by-state presidential nominating contest kicks off early next year, and the party is due to choose its nominee for the November 2024 election in July of that year.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Jack Queen, Jacqueline Thomsen and Nandita Bose; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller)
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