Trump Says He’s Been Charged in Mar-a-Lago Classified Documents Investigation

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former president Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, on March 25.

Former president Donald Trump said Thursday night that he’s been charged by the Justice Department in connection with the discovery that hundreds of classified documents were taken to his Mar-a-Lago home after he left the White House – a seismic event in the nation’s political and legal history.

A seven-count indictment has been filed in federal court naming the former president as a criminal defendant, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a case that has yet to be unsealed. The charges include willful retention of national defense secrets, obstruction of justice and conspiracy, which carry the potential of years in prison if Trump is found guilty.

Trump, who is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, will appear in federal court in Miami for an arraignment on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

The willful retention charge is a violation of a section of the broad Espionage Act, though spying is not among the charges against the former president. It is the second time he has been criminally charged since March, when he was indicted in state court in New York on 34 counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments from 2016. Trump, who has denied wrongdoing in both cases, is the only former president ever charged with a crime.

“I have been indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump wrote on the social media site Truth Social. He claimed he was being treated unfairly. “I never thought it possible that such a thing could happen to a former President of the United States,” he said in a lengthy post that ended: “I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!”

A spokesman for special counsel Jack Smith, who has been running the classified-documents investigation, declined to comment.

Trump learned of his indictment while at his club in Bedminster, N.J., huddled with advisers, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details that had not been publicly released. The call from the Justice Department came to his attorneys in the early evening, around 7 p.m., and the former president wanted to announce the indictment himself, two of these people said.

His team so expected his indictment that they already had fundraising pitches, statements and videos ready, according to advisers. He dictated his own Truth Social post within an hour after getting the news. Surrogates were also lined up, advisers said, and a satellite truck was at Bedminster for the legal team to appear.

“Nobody is disappointed that the venue is Miami,” one person said of the legal team’s thinking.

Trump lawyer Jim Trusty took to CNN on Wednesday night to defend his client as innocent, while also confirming the charges against the former president. In addition to willful retention, obstruction and conspiracy, he said Trump was charged with false statements. Trusty said he was not sure when Trump’s legal team would receive the indictment, and was not aware of whether any other individuals connected with the case had also been charged.

The charges cap a high-stakes investigation that began in early 2022 and slowly built steam over the summer, until FBI agents conducted a court-ordered search of Trump’s home and private club in early August that turned up more than 100 classified documents. Trump’s advisers had told the Justice Department in June that they had conducted a diligent search for such papers in response to a subpoena and had handed over all they could find.

In the months since that search, investigators have been gathering evidence to determine whether the former president set out to obstruct law-enforcement efforts to recover the top-secret material that was stashed at Mar-a-Lago.

While a president has never been charged with such crimes, prosecutions related to the mishandling of classified materials are not rare, said Steven Aftergood, a classified information expert. “This reflects the Justice Department applying the law to a former president, and that is really encouraging,” Aftergood said. “It really underscores the fact that no one is above the law.”

While the charges will likely test Trump’s staying power as the leader of an increasingly crowded Republican field, the case will also put new strains on the Justice Department and FBI, which must bring to trial a tycoon-turned-politician who has publicly demonized federal law enforcement for years. In preempting any official announcement of the charges, Trump sought to gain the upper hand and blame the Biden administration.

The White House declined to comment on the indictment Thursday night and referred inquiries to the Justice Department. But earlier Thursday, before Trump announced he had been charged, President Biden was asked by a reporter what he could say to Americans to “convince them” that they “should trust the independence and fairness of the Justice Department.”

Biden replied that he has “never once, not one single time, suggested to the Justice Department what they should do or not do relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge.”

Much of the Justice Department’s investigation centered around the actions of Trump and his closest advisers following the May 2022 subpoena from the government for the return of all documents with classified markings. Witness and videotape evidence gathered by the FBI indicated that Trump may have sought to keep documents, people familiar with the investigation have told The Washington Post, despite having turned over some material to authorities in response to the subpoena.

In November, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith to serve as special counsel and take charge of the Mar-a-Lago case, saying that Trump’s announced candidacy for the presidency and Biden’s likely reelection bid meant there should be another layer of independence for the investigations involving Trump.

A separate special counsel, Robert Hur, has been appointed to investigate how a much smaller number of classified documents were taken to Biden’s home and office. Trump has claimed that he should not be charged because Biden’s conduct was worse, but to date the known evidence against the former president appears to dwarf the facts of the Biden case.

For many months, Justice Department prosecutors have questioned witnesses in the Mar-a-Lago case before a federal grand jury in Washington. The secret proceedings yielded evidence of potential mishandling as well as obstruction of justice, people familiar with the investigation have said, making the federal courthouse in the nation’s capital the focal point of a waiting game: Would Trump be the first former president indicted by the Justice Department?

In early May, the parade of witnesses to that grand jury appeared to stop, but in fact the evidence-gathering continued at a federal courthouse a thousand miles south, in Miami. That courthouse is much closer to Mar-a-Lago, where most of the alleged conduct under scrutiny took place. The Post reported Wednesday that Justice Department lawyers had concluded the case against Trump would be more safely brought in Florida than in Washington, in order to avoid potentially time-consuming legal fights over the proper venue.

After months of speculation and anticipation, it become clear in recent weeks that the case of the United States v. Donald J. Trump was moving toward a momentous decision.

The Justice Department formally notified Trump’s lawyers that he was a target of a criminal investigation – hardly a surprise given the FBI search of his home last summer, but a procedural step that brought the case closer to indictment.

On Monday, the former president’s lawyers met Monday at Justice Department headquarters with Smith and other officials, including a senior career lawyer. Trump’s lawyers tried to convince the prosecutors not to file charges. People familiar with the conversation said the meeting did not go well, and Trump’s team left the meeting expecting their client would soon be indicted.

The strange legal and national security saga of how hundreds of classified documents followed Trump to Florida after he left the White House began in 2021, when the National Archives and Records Administration began pressing for Trump aides in Mar-a-Lago to return what it suspected were presidential records – historical documents that are government property.

After months of back-and-forth, 15 boxes of papers from Mar-a-Lago were returned in early 2022. When Archives officials opened the boxes, they found more than 100 classified documents scattered among the various items.

That led to questions about whether Trump had more classified papers at his Florida home. Served with the grand jury subpoena that spring, Trump’s lawyers handed over an additional 38 classified documents in a sealed envelope last June, according to court papers. But FBI agents later obtained evidence suggesting that Trump was holding onto even more material, leading them to obtain a court order for an Aug. 8 search of the property in which agents found more than 100 classified documents.

In the course of their investigation, agents and prosecutors discovered that boxes containing sensitive papers were moved out of a Mar-a-Lago storage room after Trump’s office received a subpoena for any classified papers, and boxes were moved back into the same storage room just a day before a federal prosecutor and agents visited in June to retrieve any classified papers.

Among the classified documents recovered in the course of the investigation were papers about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities, a highly sensitive document about Iran’s missile program, and pages about U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts aimed at China, according to people familiar with the matter.

Smith is separately investigating efforts by Trump and others to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as the involvement of Trump and his close aides in events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump and many of his advisers are also under investigation by the Fulton County, Ga., district attorney in connection with efforts to block Biden’s election victory.