By Masood Farivar
In an unprecedented move, a federal grand jury in the southern U.S. state of Florida charged former U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday with mishandling sensitive government documents after he left the White House, making him the first ex-American president in history to face a federal indictment.
The seven-count indictment, which has not been made public, accuses Trump, among other charges, of violating federal laws that prohibit the unauthorized retention of “national defense information,” a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Trump confirmed his indictment on his social media platform, Truth Social, saying he had been summoned to appear in court in Miami on Tuesday.
“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been Indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump wrote, apparently alluding to boxes of classified government documents seized by the FBI from his Florida estate last August.
In a video statement, Trump defiantly asserted that President Joe Biden’s administration has “weaponized” the Justice Department and the FBI to target him.
“I’m an innocent man, I’m an innocent person,” Trump said. “We can’t let this continue to go on because it’s ripping our country to shreds.”
Trump’s staunch supporters rallied behind the former president.
In a brief statement, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote, “It’s a sad day for America. God bless President Trump.”
The indictment is the latest legal trouble for Trump as he hopes to return to office after losing a reelection bid to Biden in 2020.
In April, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump on state charges of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment to an adult film star during his 2016 run for president. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.
The indictment, while a major blow to Trump’s political ambitions, does not bar him from seeking a second term in the White House.
In fact, former federal prosecutor John Malcolm noted, there are no laws that would stop him from running, even if he is convicted.
“There have been people who have run for office from prison cells,” Malcolm said.
In 2002, former Representative Jim Traficant ran for his old congressional seat while serving a prison sentence for corruption.
Trump attorney James Trusty told the cable news channel CNN the charges include willful retention of national defense information, obstruction of justice, false statements, and conspiracy.
The charge of gathering, transmitting or losing national defense information without being authorized carries a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison.
In 2019, Harold Martin III, a former National Security Agency contractor was sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information.
Obstruction of a federal investigation by destroying, altering or falsifying records is punishable by up to 20 years.
Evan Corcoran, an attorney for Trump, did not immediately respond to a VOA request for comment.
The Justice Department had been investigating Trump since early last year after the National Archives notified the law enforcement agency that the former president had stashed hundreds of sensitive government documents at his Florida resort and thwarted government efforts to retrieve them.
Trump later turned over several dozen documents but was suspected of holding on to more.
Then the FBI executed a search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, recovering more than 100 classified documents. The highly publicized search set off Republican denunciations of the Justice Department.
In all, prosecutors have retrieved more than 300 classified government documents from Trump, including documents marked “top secret/sensitive compartmented information,” the highest level of classification.
The government has kept the content of the documents under wraps but in court documents prosecutors have written their mishandling could endanger U.S. national security.
The documents originated with different agencies, including the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency, and cover a broad spectrum of national security topics, such as China and Iran’s missile program.
Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department official who is a managing director at Kroll, a risk consulting firm, called Trump’s indictment “a remarkable moment in history and the most significant case the DOJ has ever brought.”
Trump’s indictment comes as another special counsel, Robert Hur, investigates Biden’s handling of classified records dating back to his time as vice president.
The documents were found last year at Biden’s former Washington office and his home in Delaware.
Biden’s lawyers have said the documents were handed over to government officials as soon as they were found.
Even if Biden were found to have mishandled sensitive records, he would be unlikely to face criminal charges because of a long-standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, Strauss said.
“I think the most likely outcome of the special counsel’s investigation of President Biden is a report that says something like, ‘we would or would not have recommended an indictment were this not the president,’” Strauss said.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also drew scrutiny over his retention of classified documents, but the Justice Department informed him last week that it had closed the investigation and would not charge him.
VOA national correspondent Steve Herman, national security correspondent Jeff Seldin and congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this article.