When Donald Trump surrenders at a Miami courthouse on Tuesday to be formally charged with mishandling classified documents and obstructing efforts to get them back, it will kick off at least two unprecedented struggles.
One will be legal, as he becomes the first former U.S. president to face a federal criminal indictment. The second will be political, as the country grapples with whether to allow Mr. Trump to return to the White House, which he has vowed to do even in the event of a conviction.
Some of the ex-president’s supporters are vowing a third fight, taking to online forums to call for an insurrection to rescue their hero from judicial peril. “This is the final battle,” Mr. Trump declared during a campaign rally in Georgia over the weekend.
The current charges may not even be the most serious Mr. Trump will ultimately face: Both federal special counsel Jack Smith and state-level prosecutors in Atlanta are still working on investigations into the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
What are the charges?
The former president faces 37 counts, including willful retention of national defence information and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Mr. Smith’s detailed indictment accuses Mr. Trump of taking at least 337 classified documents from the White House and stashing them at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate. Among the papers were highly sensitive documents on U.S. nuclear programs, assessments of ways in which the country is vulnerable to military attack and war plans for taking on hostile countries.
Photos in the indictment show boxes of classified documents piled around Mar-a-Lago, including in a chandelier-lit bathroom and onstage in the ballroom. In addition to being Mr. Trump’s home, the mansion is also a social club with hundreds of members coming and going.
When the National Archives and the FBI tried to get the papers back, the indictment says, Mr. Trump deceived them and his own lawyers in a bid to keep the documents. On two occasions, he is accused of pulling out classified documents and showing them to people without security clearance.
Mr. Trump has suggested some possible defences, including that he still had the power to declassify the documents. He may also try to challenge the constitutionality of charging a former president.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, are likely to lean on Mr. Trump’s alleged obstruction and the documents’ significance to show criminality.
What happens in Miami on Tuesday?
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have indicated he will voluntarily surrender at 3 p.m. ET to be formally charged. Miami’s downtown courthouse is expected to be heavily fortified, both so the secret service can safely move the former president in and out, and to deal with pro- and anti-Trump protesters.
Some details, including whether Mr. Trump will be handcuffed and photographed, are not yet clear, nor is it known who will preside over the proceedings. Aileen Cannon, a Trump-appointed judge who issued legal rulings last year that slowed down the investigation, has reportedly been assigned. But prosecutors could try to get the case moved to a different judge.
Mr. Trump is expected to be released after the appearance and will fly to his estate in Bedminster, N.J., where he plans to make an evening speech.
What happens with the 2024 presidential election?
There is nothing stopping someone from running for or serving as president during a criminal prosecution or conviction. Mr. Trump vowed this past weekend to keep going even if he is found guilty. “I’ll never leave” the race, he said in an interview with Politico.
In theory, Mr. Trump could even serve as president while in prison, though the logistics of running the government from behind bars would certainly be complicated. In such a situation, he would likely try to pardon himself, potentially setting up another constitutional legal battle.
So far, most high-profile Republicans are backing him against the charges. “If he wants to store material in a box in a bathroom, in a box on the stage, he can do that,” Congressman Jim Jordan said on CNN.
Even Mr. Trump’s rivals for the presidential nomination, all of whom are far behind in the polls, have been reluctant to criticize him. Polling has consistently shown Mr. Trump in close competition with Mr. Biden in a rematch.
More ominously, some corners of Trumpworld have begun talking about violence. Some supporters took to the same forums that planned the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol to call for violent battles with the authorities. A few politicians openly fanned the flames.
“If you want to get to president Trump, you’re going to have to go through me and you’re going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me. And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association,” Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate told a weekend rally. “That’s not a threat; that’s a public service announcement.”
One rare critic from within Mr. Trump’s party is Bill Barr, his former attorney-general. He described the indictment as “very, very damning.”
“If even half of it is true, then he’s toast,” Mr. Barr said on Fox News. The former president, he said, kept the documents “in a way at Mar-a-Lago that anyone who really cares about national security, their stomach would churn.”
What’s going on with the other Trump court cases and investigations?
Mr. Trump was indicted in New York in April on state-level criminal charges related to a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. He pleaded not guilty.
Last month, a civil jury in Manhattan found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming former magazine writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered him to pay her US$5-million.
Two investigations – one federal, led by Mr. Smith, the other state level in Georgia – are still deciding whether to charge Mr. Trump for his attempts to reverse the result of the 2020 election.