Donald Trump pleads not guilty to classified documents charges
Miami (CNN) — Former President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to 37 charges related to alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Trump’s lawyers asked for a jury trial during the former president’s arraignment Tuesday at a federal courthouse in Miami. “We most certainly enter a plea of not guilty,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche told the judge.
During the hearing, Trump sat hunched over with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. He did not speak.
Trump’s aide and co-defendant, Walt Nauta, was also arrested, fingerprinted and processed. He had an initial appearance Tuesday but will not be arraigned until June 27.
Here’s what else happened at Tuesday’s hearing, which ended after roughly 45 minutes:
- Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman ruled that Trump could not communicate with Nauta about the case. The judge also told prosecutors to make a list of potential witnesses that Trump can’t communicate with about the case – except through counsel.
- The judge did not, however, place any travel restrictions on either defendant.
- The Justice Department recommended that both Trump and Nauta be released with no financial or special conditions. Prosecutor David Harbach said that “the government does not view either defendant as a flight risk.”
- Goodman began the hearing thanking “the entire law enforcement community” for their work on Tuesday.
- Before the arraignment hearing, deputy marshals booked the former president and took electronic copies of his fingerprints. They did not take a mugshot of Trump since he is easily recognizable. The booking process took about 10 minutes.
The criminal charges in the Justice Department’s classified documents case escalates the legal jeopardy surrounding the 2024 GOP front-runner. Special counsel Jack Smith attended Tuesday’s arraignment.
Trump faces 37 felony counts, alleging he illegally retained national defense information and that he concealed documents in violation of witness-tampering laws in the Justice Department’s probe into the materials.
Stop at Cuban restaurant
After the court hearing, Trump made an unannounced stop at Versailles, a well-known Cuban restaurant in Miami. Trump was surrounded by dozens of his supporters inside the restaurant, shaking hands and snapping photos with them.
“Food for everyone,” Trump told those gathered as they cheered.
At one point, Trump’s supporters sang him “happy birthday.” Trump’s birthday is on Wednesday.
“Some birthday, we got a government that is out of control,” Trump could be heard saying.
Following the restaurant stop, Trump flew back to New Jersey Tuesday evening where he spoke publicly at his Bedminster resort about what he called the “fake and fabricated charges.” The former president claimed he had “every right to have these documents” and said prosecutors “ought to drop this case immediately because they’re destroying our country.”
“They should never have done this,” he told the gathered crowd. “This was an unwritten rule, you just don’t unless it’s really bad. But you just don’t. But the seal is now broken.”
Earlier in the day, Trump posted on his social media before heading to court that it was “ONE OF THE SADDEST DAYS IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE!!!”
Tuesday’s hearing will kickstart what will likely be a winding, dramatic judicial process, with criminal and appeal proceedings that may play out for years. US District Judge Aileen Cannon – a Trump nominee whose decision last year to order a third-party review of an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago was widely criticized and overturned by a conservative appeals court – has been assigned the case.
Attorneys Todd Blanche and Chris Kise represented Trump in court for the arraignment. However, the role Kise will play going forward is unclear, and he was sidelined during last year’s litigation over the Mar-a-Lago search amid Trump team infighting.
Another Trump attorney, Alina Habba, spoke outside the courthouse ahead of Trump’s arraignment, saying that the former president was “defiant.”
Habba ridiculed what she called a “two-tiered system of justice” and called the indictment an “unapologetic weaponization of the criminal justice system.”
The Justice Department’s counterintelligence chief Jay Bratt, who has been a key player in the documents probe so far, also attended Tuesday’s hearing, along with prosecutors Harbach and Julie Edelstein.
Seriousness of the charges
Before last week’s federal indictment, Trump also faced criminal charges brought by New York City’s local prosecutors for an alleged hush money scheme in the 2016 campaign in which Trump is accused of falsifying business records.
The new charges in the DOJ documents case are drastically more serious and present the possibility of several years in prison if Trump is ultimately convicted.
Thirty-one counts that Trump faces are for willful retention of national defense information, a charge that does not turn on whether the documents are classified. In addition to the obstruction conspiracy, he also faces four counts related to the concealment of the documents, as well as a false statements charge.
“In a case like this, obstruction and tampering help prove the main charge, that the defendant willfully engaged in the charged conduct,” said David Aaron, a former federal prosecutor in espionage section of the DOJ’s national security division and a current senior counsel at Perkins Coie. “Those facts could also affect how a judge, the jury, or the public views the case and could substantially affect sentencing.”
What happens next
Now that Tuesday’s hearing is in the rearview mirror, the case will enter a legal grind of pretrial proceedings, including likely disputes over what evidence is put before a jury and whether the case should be thrown out altogether before going to trial. The Trump team will have plenty of opportunity to drag things out – potentially until after the 2024 election.
One major x-factor in the prosecution of the case is its assignment to Cannon, who sits in Ft. Pierce, Florida, but who is part of the pool of judges who are randomly cases filed in West Palm Beach, where the new indictment was brought.
“There are few things more powerful than a district judge in a federal case,” said Alan Rozenshtein, a former attorney in the DOJ National Security Division who is now a University of Minnesota law school professor. “She could – if she wanted to – cause huge problems for the prosecution. Would they be existential problems? Probably not.”
Cannon’s approach to last year’s Trump lawsuit challenging the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search raised eyebrows among legal experts across the ideological spectrum for how she appeared to bend over backward to create special legal rules in favor of the former president. Her rationale for why such a review was necessary was torn apart by a panel of right-leaning appellate judges, including two Trump appointees, on the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals last December.
“She got so banged up by the 11th Circuit that she might be ultra-cautious,” Kel McClanahan, a national security lawyer and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School, told CNN. “We just don’t know.”