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Donald Trump is back in court, and this time it’s serious

The former president faces federal charges under the Espionage Act, but he is already trying to leverage the case to bolster his election campaign.

By Katie Stallard

WASHINGTON DC – We are in uncharted territory. Again.  

In 2021 Donald Trump became the first American president to be impeached twice by the House. Then, in March this year, he became the first former president to be charged with a crime when he was indicted in New York, accused of falsifying business records to cover up payments to the porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about their relationship. In May, he became the first former president to be found liable for sexual assault in a civil case brought by the writer E Jean Carroll.

Now, Trump is the first former president in the history of the United States to face charges of committing federal crimes over his handling of classified documents after leaving office.

The early information about the charges came from Trump himself, who announced his own indictment on his Truth Social website in a series of posts on 8 June. “The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been indicted,” Trump wrote. He said he had been “summoned to appear at the Federal Courthouse in Miami on Tuesday, at 3pm”. He has already assigned a derogatory nickname to the case: “the Boxes Hoax”.

At the time of writing the justice department has not commented and the indictment has not been made public, but Trump’s lawyer Jim Trusty told CNN that he was being charged under the Espionage Act over the unauthorised retention of national security documents. He said his client also faced charges of obstruction of justice and the destruction or falsification of records. Trusty called the charges “ludicrous”. Trump also released a video insisting he had done nothing wrong. “I’m an innocent man,” he protested. “I’m an innocent person.” 

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These are serious offences that involve matters of national security – convictions under the Espionage Act can carry long prison sentences. But the outline of Trump’s defence seems clear: deny everything, deflect, and insist that he is the victim of a politically motivated attack.

[See also: The chaos and confusion of Donald Trump on trial]

As well as protesting his own innocence, for instance, Trump’s initial response to the indictment was to rail against what he claimed was unfair treatment. He claimed that Joe Biden had “documents strewn all over his garage floor where he parks his Corvette”. While Biden is under investigation for his handling of classified documents from his time as vice-president, his aides insist he immediately returned the documents when they were found and is “cooperating fully and completely” with the justice department’s investigation. 

For Trump’s supporters and many Republican primary voters, however, this is likely to be a distinction without a difference. The former president has long presented himself as the man battling the entrenched political elite and the “deep state”. The latest charges against him are only likely to fuel his fantastical claims. 

Unsurprisingly, there are indications that despite the seriousness of these charges and their implications for US security, senior Republicans are already rallying to Trump’s defence – at least in the court of public opinion.

The House speaker Kevin McCarthy called the indictment a “dark day for the United States of America”, and appeared to back up Trump’s claim that it was politically motivated. “It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him,” he wrote on Twitter. “Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades. I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump.” (There is no evidence Biden kept classified documents for decades.)

Trump may also be encouraged by the news that the case against him is heading to Miami, Florida, where his prospects of appealing to sympathetic jury members could be better than in Washington DC. A federal judge he appointed to the bench in 2020 is also expected to preside over his first court appearance on 13 June. The New York Times cited a higher court that criticised the judge “for a series of rulings that were unusually favourable to Mr Trump during the early stages of the investigation”.

Meanwhile, Trump is already fundraising for his 2024 election campaign on the basis of the new indictment: he emailed supporters immediately after announcing the charges to solicit donations. “We are watching our Republic DIE before our very eyes,” he wrote. “The Biden-appointed Special Counsel has INDICTED me in yet another witch hunt… Please make a contribution to peacefully stand with me today and prove that YOU will NEVER surrender our country to the radical Left.” 

So far, none of the legal challenges Trump has faced have dented his lead in the Republican primary field. If anything, they may have galvanised his support. Though the prospect of federal charges against him mean the stakes are more serious, the former president seems to be betting that he can weather the immediate storm and still contest the White House in 2024.

[See also: The chaos and confusion of Donald Trump on trial]

This article was originally published on 9 June.

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