Donald Trump became the first former president to face a judge on federal charges as he pleaded not guilty in a Miami courtroom Tuesday to dozens of felony counts accusing him of hoarding classified documents and refusing government demands to give them back.
The history-making court date, centered on charges that Trump mishandled government secrets that as commander-in-chief he was entrusted to protect, kickstarts a legal process that will unfold at the height of the 2024 presidential campaign and carry profound consequences not only for his political future but also for his own personal liberty.
Trump approached his arraignment with characteristic bravado, posting social media broadsides against the prosecution from inside his motorcade en route to the courthouse and insisting — as he has through years of legal woes — that he has done nothing wrong and was being persecuted for political purposes. But inside the courtroom, he sat silently, scowling and arms crossed, as a lawyer entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in a brief arraignment that ended without him having to surrender his passport or otherwise restrict his travel.
The arraignment, though largely procedural in nature, was the latest in an unprecedented reckoning this year for Trump, who faces charges in New York arising from hush money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign as well as ongoing investigations in Washington and Atlanta into efforts to undo the results of the 2020 race.
Always in campaign mode, he swiftly pivoted from the solemn courtroom to a festive restaurant, stopping on his way out of Miami at Versailles, an iconic Cuban spot in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood where supporters serenaded Trump, who turns 77 on Wednesday, with “Happy Birthday.” The back-to-back events highlight the tension for Trump in the months ahead as he balances the pageantry of campaigning with courtroom stops accompanying his status as a twice-indicted criminal defendant.
Yet the gravity of the moment was unmistakable.
Until last week, no former president had ever been charged by the Justice Department, let alone accused of mishandling top-secret information. The indictment unsealed last week charged Trump with 37 felony counts — many under the Espionage Act — that accuse him of illegally storing classified documents in his bedroom, bathroom, shower and other locations at Mar-a-Lago and trying to hide them from the Justice Department as investigators demanded them back. The charges carry a yearslong prison sentence in the event of a conviction.
Trump has relied on a familiar playbook of painting himself as a victim of political persecution. He attacked the Justice Department special counsel who filed the case as a “thug” and “deranged,” pledged to remain in the race no matter what and addressed supporters Tuesday night at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, where he delivered a roughly half-hour speech full of repeated falsehoods and incendiary rhetoric and threatened to go after President Joe Biden and his family if elected.
“The seal is broken by what they’ve done. They should never have done this,” Trump said of the indictment.
But Attorney General Merrick Garland, an appointee of President Joe Biden, sought to insulate the department from political attacks by handing ownership of the case last November to a special counsel, Jack Smith, who on Friday declared, “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
Smith attended Tuesday’s arraignment, sitting in the front row behind his team of prosecutors.
The court appearance unfolded against angst over potential protests, with some high-profile backers using barbed rhetoric to voice support. Though city officials said they prepared for possible unrest, there were few signs of significant disruption.
Trump didn’t say a word during the court appearance, other than to occasionally turn and whisper to his attorneys who were seated on either side of him. He fiddled with a pen and clasped his hands on the table in front of him as the lawyers and the judge debated the conditions of his release.
While he was not required to surrender a passport — prosecutors said he was not considered a flight risk — the magistrate judge presiding over the arraignment directed Trump to not discuss the case with certain witnesses. That includes Walt Nauta, his valet who was indicted last week on charges that he moved boxes of documents at Trump’s direction and misled the FBI about it.
Nauta did not enter a plea Tuesday because he did not have a local lawyer with him.
Trump attorney Todd Blanche objected to the idea of imposing restrictions on the former president’s contact with possible witnesses, noting they include many people close to Trump, including staff and members of his protection detail.
“Many of the people he interacts with on a daily basis — including the men and women who protect him — are potential witnesses in this case,” Blanche said.
Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that he did nothing wrong, showed no emotion as he was led by law enforcement out of the courtroom through a side door.
Even for a man whose presidency and post-White House life have been defined by criminal investigations, the documents probe had long stood out both because of the volume of evidence that prosecutors had seemed to amass and the severity of the allegations.
A federal grand jury in Washington had heard testimony for months, but the Justice Department filed the case in Florida, where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is located and where many of the alleged acts of obstruction occurred.
Though Trump appeared Tuesday before a federal magistrate, the case has been assigned to a District Court judge he appointed, Aileen Cannon, who ruled in his favor last year in a dispute over whether an outside special master could be appointed to review the seized classified documents. A federal appeals panel ultimately overturned her ruling.
It’s unclear what defenses Trump is likely to invoke as the case moves forward. Two of his lead lawyers announced their resignation the morning after his indictment, and the notes and recollections of another attorney, M. Evan Corcoran, are cited repeatedly throughout the 49-page charging document, suggesting prosecutors envision him as a potential key witness.
The indictment Friday accuses Trump of illegally retaining national security documents that he took with him from the White House to Mar-a-Lago after leaving office in January 2021. The documents he stored, prosecutors say, included material on nuclear programs, defense and weapons capabilities of the U.S. and foreign governments and a Pentagon “attack plan,” prosecutors say. He is accused of showing off some to people who didn’t have security clearances to view them.
Beyond that, according to the indictment, he repeatedly sought to obstruct government efforts to recover the documents, including by directing Nauta to move boxes and also suggesting to his own lawyer that he hide or destroy documents sought by a Justice Department subpoena.