In a historic first, the Justice Department has indicted former President Donald Trump on multiple felony charges related to his mishandling classified documents and obstructing the government’s attempts to recover them. Trump is the first former president ever to face federal criminal charges and could potentially spend years in prison if convicted. He is set to be arraigned in a Miami court on Tuesday. This latest news adds to Trump’s legal woes, with the former president also facing charges in New York related to hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 and another probe in Georgia over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. For more, we speak with Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor and currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy. “We do not have kings here. We have the rule of law, and no one is above it, including a former president,” says Aftergut.
AMY GOODMAN: Indicted again. Donald Trump has become the first president to face federal criminal charges, as a grand jury in Florida indicts him over the mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. Trump is expected to surrender to authorities in Miami on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
The indictment remains sealed. According to news accounts, Trump has been indicted on seven charges, which could mean many, many counts. On Thursday night, Trump’s attorney, Jim Trusty, appeared on CNN to discuss what he knew about the charges from the summary sheet.
JIM TRUSTY: It does have some language in it that suggests what the seven charges would be. Not 100% clear that all of those are separate charges, but they basically break out from an Espionage Act charge, which is ludicrous under the facts of this case — and I can certainly explain it — and several obstruction-based type charges, and then false statement charges, which are actually, again, kind of a crazy stretch just from the facts as we know it. So, there’s a lot to pick at eventually from the defense side, but that appears to be the charges. And it appears to be something that we’ll get off the ground on Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: The indictment stems from an investigation by special counsel Jack Smith, who’s also probing Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his role in the January 6th insurrection. Trump could still face additional federal charges in those investigations. Two months ago, Trump was also indicted in New York on 34 felony counts for falsifying business records to cover up hush-money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and others.
The new federal charges come nearly a year after the FBI found 300 classified documents during searches of Trump’s properties, including at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Part of the Justice Department’s case may rely on Trump’s own comments. CNN recently reported Trump had acknowledged on tape during a 2021 meeting that he had kept secret military information about Iran. According to a transcript, Trump said, quote, “Secret. This is secret information.”
Trump dismissed the indictment, describing it as the, quote, “boxes hoax.” In a post on his social media platform, Trump wrote, quote, “I am an innocent man.”
The charges come at a time when the former president is running again for the White House. On Thursday, his presidential rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, blasted what he called “the weaponization of federal law enforcement.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the indictment was a, quote, “dark day” for the country.
We’re joined right now by Dennis Aftergut. He is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy. His new piece for The Bulwark is titled “No One Above the Law: Trump Indicted on Federal Charges.”
Dennis, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by just responding to this indictment, how historic it is? And what do these counts on conspiracy and espionage mean?
DENNIS AFTERGUT: Amy, first, it’s a privilege to be here.
“Historic” really doesn’t even begin to describe it. No former president has ever been federally indicted. Now we have a former president who has been indicted by two grand juries in two different jurisdictions — New York and the federal government — on two different sets a facts, alleging two different sets of crimes. That does not happen very often. And when it does, it only happens with people who live on the wrong side of the law.
With respect to the espionage counts, they are extraordinarily serious. The reported allegation is the one that has been expected. He willfully retained defense-related documents that he was not authorized to have after his presidency ended. We also have the information that you described from the tape, that he was talking about them to others, and there may be very serious allegations. We’ll need to wait to see the indictment about whether there were any disclosures of top-secret, highly sensitive national security secrets.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dennis, I wanted to ask you about a couple of things. One is, if there’s a conspiracy charge, there is an assumption that there are other people involved in the conspiracy. What do you make of that? And also, the decision by the Justice Department to do this indictment in Florida rather than Washington, because, presumably, the documents were taken in Washington, D.C., originally, although they ended up, many of them, in Florida. Your sense of why this decision to conduct the indictment and the trial, presumably, in Florida?
DENNIS AFTERGUT: That is really an excellent question. Reasonable prosecutors could differ about where it should be indicted. Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant is entitled to a trial by an impartial jury in the district where the crime is committed. It’s not quite that simple, though, because crimes can be continuing and can occur in two jurisdictions. And there’s a pretty good argument that that’s exactly what happened here. The reason —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of conspiracy?
DENNIS AFTERGUT: I’m sorry?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of conspiracy?
DENNIS AFTERGUT: Yes. The issue of conspiracy, you’re absolutely correct, it takes two to tango in a conspiracy. A conspiracy is an agreement by two or more people to commit an unlawful act. They both have to share the intent to do something unlawful. There are reports that there are five sealed indictments, and so they may tell us. We need to await the unsealing of those indictments, which may happen on Tuesday at Trump’s arraignment. It could happen before.
AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of conspiracy, who were the possible people here? And, of course, we’re going to know much next week. But we learned that Mark Meadows has testified, his former chief of staff. And what that conspiracy could be? You have all this new information about Walt Nauta, who is the valet for Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago; the flooding of the server room, when they said they were emptying the pool; the moving of the boxes from one place to another. And then, talk about how serious these charges are. I mean, conspiracy, espionage, these are decades in jail.
DENNIS AFTERGUT: It’s going to be hard for me to improve on what you just said, Amy. Walt Nauta is the most obvious candidate. It’s unclear with respect to Meadows. The reports are that Meadows has agreed to plea and is cooperating on that basis. So, if that’s true — major “if” there — then he could be an unindicted co-conspirator. Although he was more clearly, by inference, a co-conspirator in removing the documents from Washington, we don’t know what his role was in obstructing justice.
You need to remember, with respect to the conspiracy to obstruct, that it was 18 months between the time the National Archives first asked for the documents back and when the FBI conducted a court-authorized search in August, as you said in your introduction, of 2022, almost a year ago, that recovered at least a hundred classified documents. So, there could have been several people involved in the stall, the long, long stall, to try to prevent the return of the documents that Trump was unauthorized to possess.
Walt Nauta would be at the top of the list as the person who is described as having moved the documents right after the subpoena for them. There was a grand jury subpoena in May of 2022. But there are many other people. There’s the allegations about gaps in the tapes. And Jack Smith is likely to know a lot more, that we may find out about when the indictment is revealed, and a lot more than that when a trial occurs.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dennis, I’m wondering if you could speculate in terms of the political impact of all of this, because, clearly, for Trump supporters — and for perhaps other Americans — there does seem to be a concerted effort by the government to go after Donald Trump, and the trials will probably last into the presidential race itself. How do you respond to the issue that Speaker McCarthy is saying, and Ron DeSantis or others, that the federal government is weaponizing law enforcement?
DENNIS AFTERGUT: I would say that is a combination of distraction and projection about what the House is doing, weaponizing the law. I would say that the concerted effort is a concerted effort for — against a serial lawbreaker. We do not have kings here. We have the rule of law, and no one is above it, including a former president. It’s a sad day for the country when a former president is indicted, and it is a necessary day when the evidence is so serious against him. Were there not an indictment, we would not have a rule of law. We would not have a rule where no one is above the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Dennis Aftergut, I wanted to ask you about a piece you recently co-authored in Salon, “Clarence Thomas, Ken Paxton and Donald Trump: The corrupting influence of oligarchy,” in which you write, quote, “It is tempting to attribute the scandals now enveloping two right wing icons — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — to both men’s lack of an ethical compass. Resisting that temptation is necessary if we are to learn a larger lesson about the roots of much political corruption in this country.” If you could go on from there? And for people who don’t know Ken Paxton, he was just impeached by — he is the Republican attorney general of Texas and was just impeached by the Republican Legislature.
DENNIS AFTERGUT: The point, the central point, of that piece is that one needs to look at the structural elements of corruption. And it’s not just in this country, Amy; it’s around the world. And the structural element is this: It’s a connection between corruption, oligarchs, people of enormous wealth and influence in the society, and right-wing parties. We quote a study out of Germany in which they look at 104 countries and found an elevated level of corruption in countries ruled by right-wing parties.
And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. People of wealth tend — and this does not apply to every person of wealth, of course — but they tend to want to preserve the status quo or return to the past, where their rights to do things were unregulated in a laissez-faire kind of economy. And right-wing parties and right-wing politicians stand for the status quo or the past. And so, it’s kind of intuitive that they want to capture political leaders who have influence over the economy. It’s kind of intuitive that those are going to be people on the right who agree with them ideologically.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to link to that piece, as well as your piece on, again, this historic indictment of President Donald Trump. He goes to court on Tuesday at 3:00 in Miami, in now his home state of Florida. Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
Coming up, a surprise decision of the Supreme Court upholding the Voting Rights Act by rejecting a racially gerrymandered voting map in Alabama. Stay with us.