Remarkable new charges against Donald Trump and two associates in the classified documents case Thursday significantly deepened the ex-president’s legal plight and dragged the 2024 election further into an unprecedented legal quagmire.
Special counsel Jack Smith alleged, following his initial 37 charges in the case, that Trump requested the deletion of security footage at his Mar-a-Lago resort to prevent it from being provided to a grand jury. Additionally, prosecutors now allege that Trump and two aides conspired to keep classified White House documents and conceal them from the grand jury, including by suggesting to one of his attorneys that he lie to investigators.
Much about Trump’s presidency and post-presidency has stretched the boundaries of credulity. But if Smith’s new counts are proven, they will create a historic scenario that represents yet another challenge to the country’s constitutional order from its former commander in chief, who is currently the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination.
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The special counsel is effectively alleging that an ex-president deliberately obstructed and defrauded the government he once led and the rule of law he was sworn to uphold. That ex-president is running to once again be the guardian of the nation’s secrets and guarantor of its constitutional system, raising profound questions about his suitability to return to the Oval Office.
“It’s a stunning development,” said former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who is now a CNN legal and national security analyst.
The detail in Smith’s new charges – and their apparent implication that Trump brazenly believes he is immune from the rules that cover other presidents or citizens – left many observers shocked, most notably over one account in which one staff member is alleged to have said that “the boss” wanted a server deleted.
“These people are lying, they are obstructing the investigation, they are destroying evidence – it’s just so blatant. … This is a group of people who are all trying to cover it up,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, the former chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, who is now a CNN legal analyst.
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According to the updated indictment, Trump not only kept documents to which he was not entitled but potentially broke the law to keep them and conspired to thwart a criminal investigation. The old maxim in the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, is echoing down through history regarding another case of alleged presidential wrongdoing: it is not the crime that incriminates a person but the attempt to cover it up.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has already pleaded not guilty to the earlier counts in the case. His team immediately dismissed the additional ones from the independent prosecutor as an attempt by the Biden administration to distract from the legal problems of the current president’s son, Hunter, after his plea arrangement with the government collapsed on Wednesday. The framing of Trump’s position reflects the extraordinary circumstances of the Justice Department under one president prosecuting his predecessor and possible successor.
The ex-president, whose legal strategy has become enmeshed with his campaign strategy, poured fuel on the political fire.
“They’re harassing my company, they’re harassing my family and by far, least importantly of all, they’re harassing me,” he told Fox News Digital, embroidering his existing narrative that he’s a victim of political persecution – despite the catalog of apparently incriminating evidence against him in multiple cases.
The ex-president also claimed he was being targeted because he was easily leading in polls of the Republican primary and the general election. He is right that he’s dominating most polls for the nomination, but his latter claim about a hypothetical matchup with Biden is not true.
The sudden new dimension in the classified documents case will have profound political and legal dimensions. To begin with, the dump of additional evidence and counts will almost certainly cause new delays in the case, tentatively set to go to trial next May. Such a postponement could thrust the process even deeper into an already super-charged election season.
Thursday’s widening of the classified documents case was even more surprising since the political world was braced for possible indictments in a separate case being investigated by the special counsel – into attempts to overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election and the lead up to the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. The ex-president’s staggering logjam of legal cases also includes an indictment on business fraud charges linked to a hush money payment made to an adult film star, which is due to go to trial in Manhattan in March – right in the middle of the GOP primary season. Trump and his allies are also waiting to see whether they’ll be charged in a Georgia district attorney’s investigation into efforts to reverse Biden’s win in the swing state.
While Trump and his associates named in the new charges, Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago employee Carlos De Oliveira, are entitled to the presumption of innocence, the additional charges raise the possibility that potential punishments, if Trump is convicted, could be even more severe.
Trump has already given every indication that he is running in 2024 partly to reacquire the presidential powers that could help him wipe out federal criminal cases against him, so Thursday’s developments will make the unfolding 2024 campaign even more existential for the former president and the nation.
Most immediately, the additional charges against Trump set a new test for his primary opponents, who have struggled to properly define themselves against the popular ex-president, partly out of concern over alienating Republican voters who are likely to view Thursday’s updated indictment as more evidence Trump is being politically persecuted.
Trump and many of his rivals are due to appear on stage one-after-the-other at the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on Friday night. The former president’s expected speech, which could be the first big public opportunity for him to respond to his new legal nightmare, is likely to once again overshadow attempts by other candidates to make a splash.
The unwillingness of most of Trump’s opponents to fully and directly call him out for his legal liabilities – and the political vulnerabilities they could carry in a general election – was encapsulated by Ron DeSantis on trail in Iowa on Thursday. The Florida governor was asked about the possibility of a third indictment of Trump, in reference to the 2020 election interference case.
“I don’t really want to get into like what’s happened in the past on any of that. We’ve talked about a lot of that in the past for many, many years now. I think it’s much better to focus on, you know, what’s going to happen going forward,” DeSantis said.
Trump’s multiple indictments – far from dooming his presidential campaign, as would have surely been the case for most conventional politicians – appear to have given him a fundraising boost and have helped his campaign by boxing in his opponents. If recent history is a guide, the new counts in the documents case will do nothing to shake the deep polarization in the country over the former president. Polls and interviews with Republican voters in key primary states show that many in the base accept Trump’s narrative that he is being persecuted and shrug off the seriousness of the allegations against him. While the idea of mishandling classified documents strikes horror into many Beltway professionals and former government officials, it’s not clear the issue penetrates so deeply in the country as a whole.
Hunter Biden’s legal problems – including the unraveled plea agreement that was originally meant to include two tax misdemeanors and to settle a gun felony charge – have given Republicans ammunition to try to allege that the true corruption lies within the Biden White House. Congressional Republicans accuse the president and his son of enriching themselves by using Hunter Biden’s business contacts in Ukraine and China, which the Bidens deny. While some House Republicans are now openly talking of the possibility of an impeachment inquiry, they have so far produced no verified evidence to back up their claims.
But Thursday’s new charges for Trump were the latest twist in an extraordinary week that saw an embarrassing spotlight trained on Biden and his son before it shifted dramatically, yet again, to the Republican front-runner.