A tunnel lit by torchlight. An attempt to delete incriminating camera footage. A “boss” whose orders must be obeyed. And all to no avail.
The latest criminal charges against Donald Trump, the former US president, conjure images of the hapless Watergate burglars or a mob movie with elements of farce.
Related: Donald Trump case tracker: where does each investigation stand?
But while they deepen Trump’s legal perils, analysts say, they will only harden his determination to regain the White House as his best chance of staying out of jail. Opinion polls show he remains the runaway frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024.
Trump, who left office in January 2021, pleaded not guilty in Miami last month to federal charges of unlawfully retaining classified government documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and obstructing justice. Prosecutors allege that he put some of America’s most sensitive national security secrets at risk.
On Thursday they updated the indictment by accusing the former president of scheming with his valet, Walt Nauta, and a Mar-a-Lago property manager, Carlos De Oliveira, to hide surveillance footage from federal investigators after they issued a subpoena for it.
It was left to others to dwell on the irony of Trump, who spent much of the 2016 campaign savaging rival Hillary Clinton for deleting emails from a computer server as secretary of state, now standing accused of trying to delete security footage at his home.
Video from the property would play a significant role in the investigation because, prosecutors say, it shows Nauta moving boxes of documents in and out of a storage room – including a day before an FBI visit to the property – at Trump’s direction.
According to the indictment, Nauta met De Oliveira at Mar-a-Lago on 25 June 2022. They went to a security guard booth where surveillance video is displayed on monitors and walked with a torch through a tunnel where the storage room was located, observing and pointing out surveillance cameras.
Two days later, according to the indictment, De Oliveira walked through a basement tunnel with a Trump employee to a small room known as an “audio closet”. The two men had a conversation supposed to “remain between the two of them”.
De Oliveira asked how many days the server retained footage. De Oliveira allegedly told the employee that “the boss” wanted the server deleted and asked: “What are we going to do?”
The indictment asserts that Trump called De Oliveira before and after the incident, and that Nauta and De Oliveira were also in contact.
Prosecutors further allege that, during a voluntary interview with the FBI last January, De Oliveira lied when he said he “never saw nothing” with regard to boxes at Mar-a-Lago.
De Oliveira was added to the indictment, charged with obstruction and false statements related to that FBI interview. This could impact the trial date, currently set for May next year, by which stage the Republican nomination may well have been decided.
Along with two new charges of obstruction of justice, there was another new count of retaining classified material. Special counsel Jack Smith describes a July 2021 incident in which Trump bragged about a “plan of attack” against another country in an interview at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
The former president then waved around the classified documents to his guests: a writer, publisher and two Trump staff members who all lacked security clearances “This is secret information,” he said, according to a recording cited in the documents, claiming that, “as president I could have declassified it” – but he had not.
The indictment says the document was returned to the federal government on 17 January 2022, which is the date Trump provided 15 boxes of records to the National Archives.
Trump now faces 40 criminal counts in the classified documents case alone. Ty Cobb, a former Trump White House lawyer, told CNN: “I think this original indictment was engineered to last a thousand years and now this superseding indictment will last an antiquity. This is such a tight case, the evidence is so overwhelming.”
The new charges were made public hours after Trump said his lawyers met with justice department officials investigating his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden, in a sign that another set of criminal charges could come soon.
Trump is the first former US president to face criminal charges. He has already been indicted twice this year, once in New York over hush-money payments to an adult film star and once already over the classified documents. He could also face charges in the state of Georgia over attempts to meddle in the 2020 election there.
But in an interview on Friday he insisted being sentenced and convicted would not force him out of the race. Trump told conservative radio host John Fredericks: “Not at all. There’s nothing in the constitution to say that it could … And even the radical left crazies are saying not at all, that wouldn’t stop [me] – and it wouldn’t stop me either.”
Such courtroom dramas would cast a long shadow over Trump’s candidacy among millions of voters during a presidential election with Joe Biden next year. Voters have repeatedly shown their apathy towards Trump and his Maga (“Make America Great Again”) extremism in elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022.
As with previous legal developments, Biden remained silent on the issue on Friday, doubtless aware that any comment on Trump’s fate would be construed as political interference.
But for now the legal woes have not hurt Trump standing in the race for the Republican nomination. Indeed, his lead over nearest rival Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has actually grown. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll earlier this month showed Trump leading DeSantis 47%-19% among Republicans, a wider lead than his 44%-29% lead before the first indictment in New York in March.
Many Republicans continue to rally to Trump’s defence, echoing his baseless allegations of a “deep state” conspiracy. Senator Josh Hawley told Fox News: “It’s so brazen right now, what they’re doing. It is really a subversion of the rule of law. I mean, they’re taking the rule of law, turning it on its head, and we cannot allow this to stand.”
Even most of Trump’s rival in the Republican primary have been reluctant to criticise Trump for fear of alienating his base. But one of them, former congressman Will Hurd, let rip in an interview on CNN. He said: “I am not a lawyer. But if you are deleting evidence, it’s because you know you’re committing a crime.”
Hurd added: “Donald Trump is running for president in order for him to stay out of jail. These are serious crimes. These are serious accusations. Donald Trump is a national security risk and he needs to be beaten in a primary so we can be done with him once and for all.”