Donald Trump pleads not guilty in classified documents case

Former US president calls historic federal criminal indictment 'evil and heinous abuse of power'

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Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in Miami on Tuesday to 37 criminal charges stemming from his handling of classified documents, marking an unprecedented moment in US history that seems sure to further polarise the nation.

In the first ever federal prosecution of a former president, Mr Trump has been accused of wilful possession of national security secrets after his presidency ended in 2021, conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and making false statements.

“Today, we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country,” Mr Trump said to supporters at an event in New Jersey hours after his arraignment in a Florida federal court.

He arrived at his Bedminster golf club for the fund-raiser, where in a speech he claimed: “I had every right to have these documents.”

No cameras were allowed in the Miami courtroom for Mr Trump's arrangement. AP reported that Mr Trump scowled with his arms crossed during the brief hearing that concluded without him having to surrender his passport.

“We are certainly entering a plea of not guilty,” Mr Trump's lawyer, Todd Blanche, told the judge.

Mr Trump has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and accuses Democratic President Joe Biden's administration of making him the target of a political witch hunt. He took to his Truth Social platform to denounce the case shortly before heading into court.

“One of the saddest days in the history of our country,” Mr Trump wrote. “We are a nation in decline.”

It is the second time this year Mr Trump has been indicted. In April, Mr Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up the illegal payment of hush money his lawyer made to an adult film star in 2016.

He also is being investigated for his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection and whether he unlawfully attempted to overturn election results.

Dozens of Trump supporters gathered outside the Miami courthouse, many wearing red Make America Great Again, or Maga, baseball caps. One held up a sign reading “Indict Jack Smith”, the special counsel who brought the charges against Mr Trump.

As Mr Trump's motorcade left the courthouse following the arraignment, an anti-Trump protester dressed in cartoon-style prison garb appeared to run towards the former president's car but was quickly detained by police.

His motorcade stopped at a restaurant in Miami, where throngs of supporters sang Happy Birthday. He will turn 77 on Wednesday.

“We have a country that is corrupt,” Mr Trump said. “We have a country that is in decline like never before.”

Mr Trump is the front-runner in the 2024 Republican primary, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis trailing a distant second. The latest indictment has not hurt the former president's standing among Republican voters, many of whom view the prosecution as politically motivated.

Unlike New York City, which skews heavily Democrat, Florida leans much more Republican, meaning Mr Trump could eventually face a more sympathetic jury in the federal case. However, the case will be heard in the Southern District of Florida, which includes Miami – one of the more Democratic cities in the US.

Prosecutors say Mr Trump stored hundreds of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, after he left the White House. They said he stored the files haphazardly at the property, where thousands of guests and visitors come and go.

Some sensitive documents were even kept in a bathroom – a far cry from secure government “Scif” facilities where classified information is supposed to be viewed by those holding security clearances.

In yet another legal headache for Mr Trump, a judge on Tuesday said E Jean Carroll, the New York writer who won a $5 million verdict against him last month, can pursue a separate $10 million defamation lawsuit against him.

Updated: June 14, 2023, 4:04 PM