With former President Donald Trump currently the leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024, his indictment last week for mishandling classified documents is likely to dominate the American political conversation for months to come.
As Democrats and Republicans define their competing positions on what Trump has done, what other politicians have done and what the law requires, the facts of the case will likely become increasingly muddled.
Here is a step-by-step account of what is known about the case, taken from court documents and other official statements.
The June 9 indictment stems from an investigation into Trump’s removal of dozens of classified government documents from the White House at his residence in Mar-a-Lago, Florida when he left office in January 2021. .
Trump did so despite a requirement under the Presidential Records Act, which requires incumbent presidents to release all records from their presidencies to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) once they leave office. .
Beginning in May 2021, NARA officials repeatedly asked Trump to return the documents he brought to Mar-a-Lago, warning that they would refer the matter to the Justice Department if he did not comply, according to the indictment.
After months of stonewalling by the former president, Trump’s representatives finally handed over 15 boxes of records in January 2022, nearly a year after he left the White House.
Much to their concern, NARA officials discovered that the boxes contained 197 documents with classified marks, including 92 marked as secret and 25 marked as top secret.
In February 2022, NARA referred the discovery to the Department of Justice, expressing concern that the classified documents were “unfolded, mixed with other documents, and otherwise (incorrectly) identified.”
On March 30, 2022, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the case. The following month, a federal grand jury was convened to receive testimony and other evidence.
What followed was a months-long investigation and efforts by the Justice Department to recover the documents still in Trump’s possession.
In May 2022, the grand jury subpoenaed Trump to turn over all classified documents he kept to the Justice Department.
Trump instead sought to “hinder” the investigation and “cover up” his possession of classified documents, according to the indictment.
Trying to evade investigators, Trump first suggested that his attorney simply tell them “there are no documents,” the indictment says.
Trump eventually agreed to let one of his attorneys search for the documents. But before the attorney could begin his review, Trump had his aide Walt Nauta move dozens of boxes from a storage room to his residence, hiding the documents from his own attorneys.
Finally, on June 3, 2022, Trump’s lawyers turned over 38 additional classified documents, but the alleged cover-up led the lawyers to tell the Justice Department that a “diligent search” of Mar-a-Lago had been conducted and that no additional documents remained on file. premises.
That certification was false, prosecutors say. According to the indictment, Trump knew that not all of the documents had been returned to the Justice Department.
Things culminated in August when the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago on August 8, seizing 102 additional classified documents from Trump’s office and a storage room.
The unprecedented search of a former president’s home has prompted Trump and his allies to accuse the Biden administration of “weaponizing” the Justice Department and the FBI to pursue enemies. Administration officials have denied the accusation.
In total, prosecutors recovered more than 300 classified government documents from Trump. Documents carry various classification marks, ranging from confidential and secret information to compartmentalized top secret/sensitive information – the highest level of classification.
The government did not disclose the contents of the documents, but prosecutors highlighted their purpose. According to the indictment, the documents “include information regarding the defense and armament capabilities of the United States and foreign countries; US nuclear programs; the potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.
The indictment lists 37 documents that Trump “willfully withheld” and did not return to the government. They were produced by various US intelligence and security agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency and FBI.
As president, Trump had access to all classified government documents. But after his term ended, he was not allowed to possess or keep them, prosecutors said.
To view national security documents, former presidents can request a waiver of the “need to know” requirement. Trump “did not obtain such a waiver after his presidency,” the indictment states.
Trump claimed he had a “standing order” to declassify all documents taken from the Oval Office to the White House residence, suggesting government documents found in his possession have been declassified.
While Trump had the power to declassify any government document as president, some legal experts have questioned his assertion about a blanket order.
Additionally, prosecutors say the former president knew that the documents he brought to Mar-a-Lago remained classified.
The indictment cites two occasions in which Trump showed secret documents to unauthorized persons while acknowledging that they were classified.
In July 2021, in a taped meeting at his New Jersey golf club with former chief of staff Mark Meadows and the editor of Meadow’s upcoming memoir, Trump allegedly showed a “plan of attack” which, according to him, had been prepared for him by the Pentagon and senior military officials. Describing the plan as “highly confidential” and “secret,” Trump said, “As president, I could have declassified it,” adding, “Now I can’t, you know, but it’s still a secret”.
Then in August or September 2021, Trump allegedly showed a representative of his political action committee a classified map related to a military operation, telling the representative that Trump “shouldn’t show it (to him) and that (he) won’t shouldn’t be too close,” according to the indictment. The representative did not have a security clearance.
The indictment charges Trump with violating seven separate statutes, including 31 counts of “willful withholding” of national defense information under the Espionage Act.
Each violation of the Espionage Act provision carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
The other six charges are for conspiracy to obstruct justice, corruptly withholding and concealing a document or record, concealing a document in a federal investigation, and concealing his possession of classified documents from the FBI and to the grand jury.
The charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, corruptly withholding and concealing a document or record, and concealing a document in connection with a federal investigation are punishable by 20 years in prison. prison.
The final tally of “ploy to conceal” has a maximum duration of five years.
Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
To undermine the legitimacy of the indictment, Trump and his allies criticized the Justice Department, saying it allowed other officials, such as President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence, to get away with mishandling classified documents.
But legal experts say the Trump case is different from theirs. Biden’s attorneys said they returned 16 classified documents as soon as they found them at Biden’s former office in Washington and at his home in Delaware.
A dozen classified documents were found at Pence’s Indiana home and turned over to NARA.
Neither Biden nor Pence are accused of “voluntarily retaining” the documents and refusing to return them.
A special counsel, Robert Hur, examines Biden’s handling of the documents.
But even if Biden is found to have mishandled classified documents, he likely wouldn’t face any charges because the Justice Department has long taken the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted, says Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department official who is now a managing director at Kroll, a risk consultancy.
“I think the most likely outcome of the special counsel’s investigation into President Biden is a report that says something like, ‘We would or wouldn’t have recommended an impeachment if it wasn’t for the president,'” Strauss said.
The Justice Department told Pence this month it had closed its investigation and would not charge him.
John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor who is vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said there is no law preventing Trump from running for president, even if he is convicted.
“There have been people running for office from prison cells,” Malcolm said.
In 2002, former Representative Jim Traficant ran for his old seat in Congress while serving a prison sentence for corruption.