4 takeaways from Trump’s federal indictment in documents case

For the second time in a little more than two months, Donald Trump has been indicted. In late March, it was for allegedly falsifying business records related to hush money payments in Manhattan; now, it’s long-anticipated federal charges connected to his retention of and failure to return classified documents.

Details of the indictment are scant, but The Washington Post reports that in special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation, Trump has been charged with seven counts, including illegal retention of government secrets, obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Trump is due to appear in court in Miami on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Below are some takeaways.

1. Clues from what we know about the charges

While we know few details, we have learned some things about the charges, in addition to the number.

Appearing on CNN on Thursday night, Trump lawyer Jim Trusty said the court summons suggests the charges will include violating the Espionage Act, multiple false-statement charges and a somewhat surprising one: obstruction of an official proceeding.

Charges under the Espionage Act wouldn’t necessarily mean Trump engaged in spying; this portion of federal law can involve merely failing to turn over documents when requested, and it was cited in the warrant for the FBI search of Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in August. It was also at issue in the Hillary Clinton emails probe.

The false statements could certainly pertain to assurances by Trump’s legal team that they had turned over all documents requested, when in fact they had not.


As for obstruction of an official proceeding? This has most often been invoked in the context not of the classified documents probe, but rather the other portion of Smith’s investigation: Jan. 6. It’s a charge used against many Jan. 6 defendants accused of delaying Congress’s counting of the electoral votes that day. But obstruction of an official proceeding can also apply to court cases, including instances of witness tampering.

2. Familiar GOP response: Denounce the process without defending the man

As with the Mar-a-Lago search, we were greeted Thursday night with responses that were remarkably consistent within each party, but very different in tone between the sides.

While Democrats emphasized a wait-and-see approach, the rule of law and even the principle of being innocent until proved guilty, Republicans, just as they did after the Mar-a-Lago search, leaped to cast the charges as a witch hunt, despite us again knowing little about the evidence relied upon.

Many Republicans suggested it was too coincidental that the indictment came the same day Republicans claimed they had a breakthrough in their investigation of the Biden family. (Never mind that this case has been building for a long time, and Republicans have repeatedly claimed such bombshells in the Biden probe, with very little in the way of public substantiation.)

Many also suggested that Americans should be scared if the Justice Department thinks it can charge Trump, or compared the situation to classified documents that were discovered in Biden’s possession. “If the people in power can jail their political opponents at will, we don’t have a republic,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted.

[Trump case presents extraordinary test of Attorney General Merrick Garland’s integrity]

But the indictment apparently deals with very specific conduct that even former Trump allies like William P. Barr have argued was obviously problematic, at the least. And it evidently deals with obstruction rather than merely having the documents in the first place, as Biden and former vice president Mike Pence did.

Trump’s top 2024 opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, echoed other Republicans in citing an alleged “weaponization of federal law enforcement” and an “uneven application of the law.”

Among the few Republicans offering something of a Trump criticism was another 2024 opponent, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who called on Trump to drop out.

“While Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction,” Hutchinson said.

There was a common thread missing from virtually all of the GOP responses: Any real vouching for Trump’s actual conduct. We’ve already learned plenty about his failure to return the documents when the federal government came calling — and his possibly even showing them to people. And given all we know — and don’t know — it’s much easier to decry the process than to deal in substance we still know relatively little about.

What’s clear is that Republicans aren’t concerned about looking like they prejudged the case.

3. The potential 2024 impact

It’s too early to say with any certainty how this will bear on the 2024 race, of course. Much will depend on the details and how the case and the political debate progress as voters are making their decisions.

What we can say at the outset is that, while Trump’s first indictment doesn’t seem to have hurt him and might have even helped him in the GOP primary, this one appears more problematic.

The pollster YouGov recently found that 65 percent of Americans regarded it as a “serious crime” to take highly classified documents from the White House and obstruct efforts to retrieve them. That included 42 percent of Republicans.

Those numbers were significantly lower in the hush money case: 52 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Also significantly, 63 percent of voters said being convicted of a “serious crime” would be disqualifying for a presidential candidate. Those saying both that these kinds of charges are serious and that such a serious conviction would be disqualifying? Fifty percent of Americans.


Not surprisingly, these numbers are lower among Republicans. While 42 percent say these kinds of charges are serious, just 21 percent say a conviction on them would disqualify Trump. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t hurt Trump in a primary, but it appears to be a relatively smaller issue for a majority of voters and could logically even help Trump by rallying his support behind a perceived injustice.

And we’ve seen before how Republicans can adjust their assessment after charges are filed. Before Trump’s Manhattan indictment, the same pollster showed 73 percent of Republicans thought the conduct Trump is alleged to have committed in the hush money cases was criminal (the poll didn’t mention Trump). After charges were filed, that dropped below a majority.

All of this would seem subject to change based on what we learn in the case. But we might not get a resolution before the 2024 presidential campaign concludes, meaning perceptions could matter more than anything for the future of our country.

4. The history made

Trump has now made history with both of his indictments. Before, it was for becoming the first former president of the United States to be indicted; now, it’s for becoming the first former president to be federally indicted.

But while this is unprecedented, it’s not the first time a former president has faced legal scrutiny, nor is it unheard of in the Western world.

The Justice Department, for instance, wrote a draft indictment of Richard M. Nixon before he was pardoned by Gerald Ford for the Watergate scandal. We’ve also seen heads of state prosecuted and even convicted in countries such as France, Italy and South Korea.

It’s also important to note amid the “unprecedented” talk that we’re dealing with a relatively small sample size of former presidents in our young country - just 43 before Trump and President Biden. And it’s rare for a former president to attempt to remain a force in our politics, which arguably makes accountability more important.

At the same time, it’s undoubtedly a major step in our country’s history. Local charges brought by a Democratic prosecutor are one thing - and many Americans have seen politics potentially playing a role in Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump - but a federal indictment is quite another.

And regardless of the wisdom and substantiation of such charges, now begins the process of figuring out how our embattled political system can deal with the situation.