(Reuters) – Donald Trump faces a formidable task defending himself against accusations that he illegally kept top secret documents when he left the White House in 2021, according to legal experts, who said neither the law nor the Facts didn’t seem to be on his side.
The former US president, who is running to run again in the 2024 election, was charged in an unsealed indictment in federal court in Florida on Friday. The 37 counts against him include violations of the Espionage Act, conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements.
National security law experts have been struck by the breadth of evidence in the indictment, which includes documents, photos, text messages, audio recordings and witness statements. They said that made a strong case for prosecutors’ allegation that Trump illegally took the documents and then tried to conceal them.
“The details are quite shocking in terms of the carelessness with which these documents were handled and the concerted efforts to keep them out of the hands of the FBI,” said Elizabeth Goitein, national security law expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Trump’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Trump claimed his innocence and called the case a “witch hunt” orchestrated by political enemies.
“There has been no crime except what the DOJ and FBI have done against me for years,” he wrote on his Truth Social platform Friday.
Trump’s greatest peril may lie in conspiracy to obstruct justice, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Legal experts say evidence appears to show Trump knew he had documents subject to subpoena in his possession, but refused to hand them over and encouraged his lawyers to mislead the FBI .
“It’s about as clear a case of obstruction as you can imagine,” said Clark Neily, legal expert at the curator Cato Institute.
Obstruction of justice is a particularly difficult charge to defend, said attorney Mark MacDougall. “It offends people. Hiding things from legal legal process. Most people understand why it’s a crime,” he said.
Legal experts said Trump’s alleged efforts for years to conceal documents was likely a major factor in special counsel Jack Smith’s decision to indict him.
“WORSE THAN CRIME”
During the investigation, Trump’s lawyers told the FBI that they had turned over all classified documents in their possession, which was untrue. They deny intentionally misleading investigators.
“This is a situation where the cover-up is worse than the crime,” said Goitein of the Brennan Center. “If he had only been negligent, no charges would have been brought.”
The conspiracy element makes obstruction charges much more serious, and all prosecutors must prove that Trump worked with another person to try to obstruct the investigation, whether or not they were successful.
Cato’s Neily said based on his reading of the indictment, prosecutors likely have numerous witnesses who gave them similar accounts of Trump’s efforts.
Trump claimed to have declassified the documents before taking them. This claim is contradicted by a taped conversation cited in the indictment, according to which Trump showed a secret document to several people and said he “could have declassified it” as president, but did not. not done.
But the question of classification will probably end up being irrelevant. Prosecutors charged Trump under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that predates classification and only criminalizes the unauthorized retention of “national defense information.”
National defense information does not need to be classified to be covered by this law, national security law experts have said. The information must only be useful to the nation’s adversaries and be closely held by the government.
“Let’s say that all the documents have been declassified. The Espionage Act doesn’t care,” said Georgetown University law professor Todd Huntley.
COULD TRUMP FORGIVE HIMSELF?
However, Trump has potentially effective strategies. His lawyers might dispute the testimonies, blame others, or claim that he was following the advice of his lawyers and had no intention of breaking the law.
If tried, a Florida jury will hear the case since that’s where the special counsel requested the indictment. In the conservative-leaning state, Trump would only need one juror to oppose his conviction for a mistrial.
His defense team could also file motions that would delay a trial until after the November 2024 election. Legal experts disagree on whether Trump could forgive himself if he wins.
(Reporting by Jack Queen in New York; Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, DC; Editing by Amy Stevens and Cynthia Osterman)