MIAMI (AP) — Former President 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 that he hoarded classified documents and refused government demands to give them back.
The history-making arraignment 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 more urgently for his own personal liberty.
Trump approached his arraignment with characteristic bravado, posting social media broadsides against the prosecution from inside his motorcade and insisting as he has through years of legal woes that he has done nothing wrong and was being persecuted for political purposes. But the gravity of the moment was unmistakable as he answers to 37 felony counts that accuse him of willfully retaining classified records that prosecutors say could have jeopardized national security if exposed, and trying to hide them from investigators who demanded them back.
The case is loaded with political implications for the 76-year-old Trump, who currently holds the dominant spot in the early days of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Beyond that, it carries the prospect of a years-long prison sentence. Even for a defendant whose post-presidential life has been dominated by investigations, the documents probe has stood out for both the apparent volume of evidence amassed by prosecutors and the severity of the allegations.
It’s also a watershed moment for a Justice Department that until last week had never before brought charges against a former president. Attorney General Merrick Garland, an appointee of President Joe Biden, sought to insulate the department from political attacks by handing ownership of the case to a special counsel, Jack Smith, who on Friday declared, “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
The arraignment, though largely procedural in nature, is the latest in an unprecedented public 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. He’s sought to project confidence in the face of unmistakable legal peril, attacking Smith as “a Trump hater,” pledging to remain in the race and scheduling a speech and fundraiser for Tuesday night at his Bedminster, New Jersey, club.
“They’re using this because they can’t win the election fairly and squarely,” Trump said Monday in an interview with Americano Media.
The court appearance is also unfolding against the backdrop of potential protests. Some high-profile backers have used barbed rhetoric to voice support. Trump himself has encouraged supporters to join a planned protest Tuesday at the courthouse.
Some Trump supporters headed to Miami by bus from other parts of Florida, raising concerns for law enforcement officials preparing for possible unrest around the courthouse. Miami Police Chief Manuel A. Morales said downtown could see anywhere from a few thousand up to 50,000 protesters. But heading into the court appearance, there were no reports of major chaos.
Among those present were the father-son duo of Florencio and Kevin Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. fifteen years ago as asylum seekers fleeing dictatorship in Cuba.
Wearing a shirt that reads “Jesus is my savior, Trump my president,” the younger Rodriguez, Kevin, said it was possible Trump was guilty of illegally retaining classified documents. But he questioned the fairness of the proceedings in light of other classified information probes concerning Democrats, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden.
Clinton was not charged for sending classified information on a private email server after FBI investigators concluded that she had not intended to break the law. The Biden investigation remains open, but no evidence has emerged to suggest he acted willfully — a core claim in the Trump indictment.
“We never abandon our amigos — those who love this country and our liberty,” Rodriguez added, highlighting Trump’s staunch opposition to Cuba’s communist government.
The crowd also included far-right internet personality Anthime Gionet, who served a two-month prison sentence for streaming live video while he stormed the U.S. Capitol. Gionet, better known as “Baked Alaska,” was livestreaming video of his interactions with other people as they waited for Trump to arrive.
Unlike in the New York case, where photographers produced images of a somber-faced Trump at the defense table, the public’s view inside the room will limited. Cameras are generally not permitted in federal courts, and a judge Monday night barred reporters from having phones inside the building.
A federal grand jury in Washington had heard testimony for months in the documents case, but the Justice Department filed it in Florida, where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is located and where many of the alleged acts of obstruction occurred. Though Trump is set to appear 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.
Trump has said he’s looking to add to his legal team though no announcements were made Monday. He was expected to be represented at his arraignment by Todd Blanche, an attorney also defending him in the New York case, and Florida lawyer Chris Kise, who joined Trump’s stable of attorneys last year. Under the rules of the district, defendants are required to have a local lawyer for an arraignment to proceed.
The Justice Department unsealed Friday an indictment charging Trump with 37 felony counts, 31 relating to the willful retention of national defense information. Other charges include conspiracy to commit obstruction and false statements.
The indictment alleges Trump intentionally retained hundreds of classified documents that he took with him from the White House to Mar-a-Lago after leaving office in January 2021. The material he stored, including in a bathroom, ballroom, bedroom and shower, included material on nuclear programs, defense and weapons capabilities of the U.S. and foreign governments and a Pentagon “attack plan,” prosecutors say.
Beyond that, prosecutors say, he sought to obstruct government efforts to recover the documents, including by directing personal aide Walt Nauta — who was charged alongside Trump — to move boxes to conceal them and also suggesting to his own lawyer that he hide or destroy documents sought by a Justice Department subpoena.