Could Trump go to jail? Federal charges over classified documents show momentum building

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Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

He could really go to jail.

Donald Trump has just become the first former president in American history to face federal criminal charges.

On Thursday night, it emerged that Trump had been indicted for allegedly mishandling classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

He was reportedly charged with seven counts, including willful possession of national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He is due in court in Miami, Florida on Tuesday afternoon after likely surrendering to the FBI there.

Related: What is the Trump Mar-a-Lago affair about and why is it important?

It’s often tempting to exaggerate every Trump drama and then lose sight of the moment when something truly monumental happened. Thursday night’s action by the Justice Department was truly monumental.

First, it begs the question: what was Trump doing with government secrets? It was reported last month that prosecutors had obtained an audio recording in which Trump spoke about retaining a classified Pentagon document linked to a potential attack on Iran.

Second, Trump could soon join a notorious club that includes Silvio Berlusconi from Italy, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac from France, and Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak from South Korea. All have been prosecuted and convicted of corruption over the past 15 years.

This is Trump’s latest stress test for American democracy: Can the state hold a former president accountable and enforce the rule of law? There was a near miss for Richard Nixon, who could have faced federal charges for Watergate but was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.

A police car is parked outside the Mar-a-Lago Club, home of former US President Donald Trump, on April 3, 2023

A police cruiser is parked outside the Mar-a-Lago Club, home of former President Donald Trump earlier this year. Photograph: Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images

The White House knows it can’t afford to be wrong. Joe Biden is trying to avoid commenting on Trump’s myriad legal troubles. Attorney General Merrick Garland also kept them at bay by appointing Jack Smith as special counsel. It was Smith who investigated the Mar-a-Lago documents case.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, says, “I don’t think he’s an excessive prosecutor. He is very rigorous and vigorous and independent and that is what you want here and that is what is needed. I don’t think Merrick Garland had anything to do with it other than naming it.

But what about the Republican Party? Did he solemnly accept the news of the indictment and call on Americans to let justice take its course? Has the Trump fever finally erupted, with party leaders denouncing the old demagogue and ushering in a new era?

He does not have.

“It is inadmissible for a president to indict the main candidate who opposes him”, tweeted Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House of Representatives. “I and all Americans who believe in the rule of law stand with President Trump against this grave injustice.”

Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida and Trump’s main rival in the Republican presidential primary, wrote on Twitter“The militarization of federal law enforcement poses a deadly threat to a free society…Why be so zealous about prosecuting Trump and yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?

Senator JD Vance of Ohio described it as a “sham indictment”, Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee compared the United States to a “banana republic” and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri told Fox News, “if the ruling president can just jail his political opponents, that’s what Joe Biden is trying to do tonight, we don’t have a republic anymore.”

Trump’s base will also be unmoved. They will swallow his allegation of “election interference” by his enemies. They will say Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence were also caught with classified documents while forgetting – or willfully ignoring – that Biden and Pence complied with authorities while Trump allegedly obstructed justice. .

They will also point to House Republicans’ increasingly vocal corruption allegations against Biden and his family (for which they have provided no evidence) as evidence of a double standard. A Fox News interview with Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene came with the chyron: ‘Trump indicted same day Burisma scandal could be confirmed’ – the word potentially do a lot of work.

In short, it’s less of a game-changer than a replay of less than three months ago when Trump was charged by New York prosecutors with 34 counts of falsifying business records for a silent payment to a star. of adult cinema. The former president saturated the news cycle, enjoyed a boost in the polls and coerced his main rivals into rallying behind him. He raised over $4 million within 24 hours of the indictment being released.

The same rinse-and-repeat cycle seems likely if and when Trump is hit with yet more accusations regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection and Georgia election tampering. But there is a sense of escalation, as the electoral calendar and the legal calendar rush towards a big collision.

Could Trump accept the Republican nomination wearing an ankle bracelet? Could he run against Biden from a jail cell? Could the US presidency become the ultimate get-out-of-jail card? Today’s joking speculation has a habit of making tomorrow’s headlines.

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