Trump Arraigned, Pleads Not Guilty to 37 Classified Documents Charges

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Donald Trump boards his plane Tuesday after his arraignment in Miami on federal charges related to keeping classified documents.

MIAMI – Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that he broke the law dozens of times by keeping and hiding top-secret documents in his Florida home – the first hearing in a historic court case that could alter the country’s political and legal landscape.

“We most certainly enter a plea of not guilty,” Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche said at the arraignment in a small but packed courtroom, where Trump sat at the defense table scowling and with his arms folded for much of the hearing.

Flanked by two of his lawyers, Blanche and Christopher Kise, the former president listened impassively as U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman said he planned to order the former president not to have any contact with witnesses in the case – or his co-defendant, Waltine “Walt” Nauta – as the case proceeds. Trump did not speak except to whisper to Blanche, seated to his right, and Kise on his left.

Blanche objected to the judge’s proposal, saying that Nauta and a number of witnesses are members of Trump’s staff or security detail who rely on him for their livelihood. The facts of the case, Blanche said, revolve around “everything in President Trump’s life.”

The judge relented somewhat, saying that Trump should not speak to Nauta or witnesses about the facts of the case. As to which Trump employees might be affected by the restriction, the judge instructed the prosecution team to provide a list.

Trump finished signing the bond paperwork about 3:30 p.m., after it appeared it had to be returned to the defense table twice because he and his lawyers didn’t sign or initial every line needed. “Third time’s a charm,” Goodman said.

Both Trump and Nauta were named in a 38-count indictment that was unsealed Friday, setting the stage for a high-stakes public trial in which prosecutors will allege that the 45th president risked national security by stashing secret papers in a bathroom, a ballroom and his bedroom, among other places, months after leaving the White House.

On Tuesday, wearing a dark suit and red tie, Trump arrived at the federal courthouse from his Doral resort shortly before 2 p.m. A few hundred people, most of them Trump supporters, had gathered and were waving flags and chanting. Within 15 minutes, he was processed by the U.S. Marshals Service, which included taking his fingerprints with a digital scanner.

The first former U.S. president to stand accused of federal crimes, Trump could be sentenced to years in prison if found guilty. He publicly attacked special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the investigation, in the hours before his court appearance, calling the veteran prosecutor a “thug” and a “lunatic” in social media posts. Smith, who was tapped by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November, sat in the courtroom on Tuesday but did not speak at the hearing.

Trump, who is again seeking the Republican presidential nomination, faces the remarkable prospect of sitting at a defendant’s table for federal and state trials that may overlap with the presidential primaries or nominating conventions. He was arraigned in April in state court in New York City on fraud charges stemming from a 2016 hush money payment. He is also under investigation in Georgia’s Fulton County, where the district attorney is weighing whether to charge Trump and his supporters with crimes related to their efforts to undo Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory.

Separately, Smith, the special counsel, is also conducting a federal investigation into the events surrounding the 2020 election results and the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in each case. He suffered another legal setback Tuesday when a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that writer E. Jean Carroll could add new defamation claims to a lawsuit she has filed against him. Carroll recently won a $5 million judgment against Trump in a different lawsuit in New York, after a jury found Trump sexually abused her decades ago and – last year – defamed her.

Even during his arraignment, Trump’s legal strategy continued to be primarily political: A fundraising email from his campaign landed while he was inside the courthouse, vowing he would never drop out of the 2024 race. “They can indict me, they can arrest me, but I know . . . that I am an innocent man,” Trump wrote in the appeal for money. And he tried as much as possible to turn the potential humiliation of a criminal court date into a publicity tour, staging a surprise campaign stop in Miami at a popular Cuban restaurant and scheduling an evening speech in New Jersey.

After Trump entered the courthouse, one of his lawyers spoke to reporters gathered outside. “What we are witnessing today is the blatant and unapologetic weaponization of the criminal justice system,” Alina Habba said.

Neither defendant was forced to surrender his passport, as is sometimes required after an indictment, and no limits were placed on their travel, because prosecutor David Harbach said the government “does not believe either defendant is a flight risk.”

During the hearing, Goodman repeatedly referred to Trump as the “former president,” while his attorneys referred to him as “President Trump.” Harbach often called Trump “the defendant.”

Nauta did not enter a plea, because he did not have a local Florida lawyer to represent him. An arraignment for him was scheduled for June 27.

There was no discussion during the 45-minute court hearing of when, or where, Trump must next appear in court.

Nauta served in the White House before and during Trump’s presidency and then followed him to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s home and private club in Palm Beach. He is charged with conspiring with Trump to hide some of the classified documents from the government agents trying to recover them.

On the campaign trail, Nauta and Trump travel together frequently. On Tuesday they went to court together. As Trump’s motorcade pulled away from the courthouse, he flashed two thumbs up to flag-waving supporters on the sidewalk.

After the arraignment, the president turned defendant dropped by Versailles restaurant, a focal point for Miami’s right-leaning Cuban community, where smiling customers greeted him and posed for pictures. Nauta remained steadfastly by his side.

“Thank you Miami,” Trump posted on social media. “Such a warm welcome on such a SAD DAY for our Country!”

Trump faces 31 counts of willful retention of national defense information. Each count represents a different classified document he allegedly withheld – 21 that were discovered when the FBI searched the property in August 2022, and 10 that were turned over to the FBI in a sealed envelope two months earlier.

The secret papers the FBI recovered from Mar-a-Lago 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 charging document accuses Trump of talking about and showing others some of the classified papers. It offers only broad descriptions of the documents he allegedly withheld: 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.

Trump was not charged with mishandling any of the 197 classified documents that he returned to the National Archives and Records Administration in early 2022, an indication that if the former president had simply handed over all classified material when he was subpoenaed, he might not have been indicted at all.

The case will now move into a pretrial phase overseen by U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who had ruled in Trump’s favor during legal skirmishes last year over the FBI search of Trump’s home – decisions that were ultimately reversed by an appeals court.

In announcing the charges, Smith said national security laws “are critical for 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 everyone,” Smith declared.

Trump and his supporters, including many Republican officeholders, claim that his prosecution marks a political double standard, and that he is being treated more harshly than Democrats who have come under investigation in other cases.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) announced Tuesday that he will block most nominees to the Justice Department in response to what he called “the unprecedented political persecution” of Trump. “I think that we have to grind this department to a halt until Merrick Garland promises to do his job and stop going after his political opponents,” the senator said.