Trump charges pose greater legal peril but Republicans stand by their leader

Former US president faces dozens of criminal charges

This is the second indictment for Donald Trump, who has been separately charged with dozens of felonies in a New York state investigation. AFP
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Donald Trump has become the first former US president to be charged with a federal crime and could potentially end up in prison, but despite the seriousness of the allegations, it is unclear whether the latest indictment will hurt his standing among Republican voters.

Mr Trump faces 37 criminal charges, including the unauthorised retention of classified documents and conspiracy to obstruct justice after leaving the White House in 2021, according to federal court documents made public on Friday.

This is the second indictment for Mr Trump, who has been separately charged with dozens of felonies in a New York state investigation into hush-money payments he allegedly made to a former adult film actress during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Legal experts say the new indictment, filed in Miami, Florida, is potentially more perilous for Mr Trump than the New York case.

“The federal charges, what we know about them so far, carry prison sentences with them,” Anna Cominsky, a law professor at New York Law School, told The National, describing the Florida indictment as a “big deal”.

Mr Trump was charged with 31 counts of violating the Espionage Act by willfully retaining national defence information. According to the indictment, each count caries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In addition, he faces a handful of other charges including conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document or record and concealing a document, all of which come with a maximum sentence of 20 years.

“Federal sentencing guidelines are quite unforgiving and it would be much more likely if he were convicted that he would serve a prison sentence at the federal level,” said Ms Cominsky.

A woman celebrating the indictment holds a banner in front of the White House on Friday. AFP

The 49-page indictment outlines the alleged extent that Mr Trump went to keep possession of the documents.

“It lays out not just a careless handling of documents, but a wilful disregard of the rules and a willingness to lie and manipulate others to keep these records,” said Cheryl Bader, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.

“I think the evidence tells the story and it highlights Trump's belief that he is above the law and that the rules only apply to other people.”

Immediately after Mr Trump announced the indictment on Thursday, dozens of Republicans rushed to his defence as they sought to set a narrative that the prosecution is politically motivated.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is running against Mr Trump for next year's Republican presidential nomination, said the US has “for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation” and promised that “the DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ [Department of Justice]”.

The Department of Justice has been investigating Mr Trump's handling of classified documents after his presidency ended in January 2020, and in August, FBI agents conducted a court-approved search of his home and Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Authorities found 182 documents with “confidential”, “secret” and “top secret” labels, which require some of the highest levels of security clearance to view.

Because the alleged crimes took place in Washington and Florida, the department could have brought the case in the heavily Democratic capital, where a jury would have probably been more sympathetic to prosecutors than in Florida, Mr Trump's adopted home.

Judge Aileen Cannon, who was appointed by Mr Trump, will initially preside over the case. She has previously ruled in his favour, granting his request for an independent review of the files seized by FBI agents from his Mar-a-Lago residence back in August 2022.

Jim Zirin, a former federal prosecutor, said the fact the Department of Justice is willing to try the case in Miami suggests prosecutors “feel confident they have a strong case”.

“You never know what can happen if the judge is against you with evidentiary rulings and other things of that sort,” Mr Zirin, who wrote the 2019 book Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits, told The National.

“There's also the problem with the Florida jury that they're much more likely to get [Trump supporters] on the jury in Florida than Washington, DC, where they are almost assured of conviction.”

The New York indictment saw Mr Trump's popularity rise among Republican voters, who see the numerous investigations into the former president as a witch hunt. He has been able to raise millions of dollars for his campaign off the back of the first indictment.

Mr Trump and his team wasted no time in trying to capitalise on the new charges.

“The Biden regime, which is realising they can’t beat or cheat their way to another victory, has taken the unprecedented step to indict President Trump,” said Karoline Leavitt, spokeswoman for Mr Trump's campaign group.

“America is a nation that has become plagued by a two-tier system of justice that must be confronted and destroyed.”

Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, said he worried the partisanship over the charges could spur political violence – already a growing problem in the US.

“There are some Republicans who are very dangerously taking Trump's side before they've even seen the specific charges and are giving, I think, encouragement, whether expressly or implicitly, to people who may take violent action on Trump's behalf,” Mr Edelson told The National.

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America finds itself at moment of presidential reckoning not seen since Richard Nixon infamously resigned from office in 1974 over the Watergate scandal.

But a half-century later, the US political landscape has changed entirely and Mr Trump remains the Republican front-runner in the primary race for the 2024 presidential elections by more than 30 points.

During his time in office, Mr Trump faced the first of two impeachments over accusations that he and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, leveraging an Oval Office visit for political investigations into Democrats.

Polling from FiveThirtyEight showed that American support and opposition to impeachment stayed about the same throughout the entire trial and all the evidence it sought to produce.

Mr Trump's legal troubles do not preclude him from running for the White House.

“Federal charges, federal convictions, [you] still can run for president, [you] still can become president,” Ms Cominsky said.

Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress claim that the timing of the indictment was a distraction ploy by the Biden administration over unsubstantiated bribery claims.

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee on Thursday morning continued to accuse the Biden family of bribery and corruption after reviewing a form from the FBI behind closed doors.

Republican members of Congress have released financial documents that failed to prove any of those accusations, which NBC news reported were reviewed by the FBI and a prosecutor in 2020 and were found to be unsubstantiated.

Updated: June 09, 2023, 9:15 PM