The Trump Documents Case: What you need to know

Former US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ, June 13, 2023, after pleading not guilty to dozens of felony counts that he hoarded classified documents and refused government demands to give them back. [AP Photo]

With former President Donald Trump currently the leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024, his indictment last week on charges of mishandling classified documents stands to dominate the American political conversation for months to come.

As Democrats and Republicans stake out their competing positions on what Trump did, what other politicians did, and what the law requires, the facts of the case will likely become increasingly muddled.

Here is a step-by-step account of what is known about the case as drawn from court filings and other official statements.

National Archives

The June 9 indictment arose from an investigation into Trump’s removal of scores of classified government documents from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida when he left office in January 2021.

Trump did this despite an obligation under the Presidential Records Act, which requires departing presidents to release all records of their presidencies to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) once they leave office.

Beginning in May 2021, NARA officials repeatedly asked Trump to return the documents he had taken to Mar-a-Lago, warning that they would refer the matter to the Justice Department if he failed to comply, according to the indictment.

After months of stonewalling by the former president, Trump’s representatives finally turned over 15 boxes of records in January 2022, nearly a year after he had left the White House.

To their alarm, NARA officials discovered that the boxes contained 197 documents with classified markings, including 92 marked as secret, and 25 marked as top secret.

In February 2022, NARA referred the discovery to the Justice Department, expressing concern that classified documents were “unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise (improperly) identified."

On March 30, 2022, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the matter. The following month, a federal grand jury was impaneled to receive testimony and other evidence.

FBI search

What followed was a monthslong inquiry and effort by the Justice Department to retrieve the documents still in Trump’s possession.

In May 2022, the grand jury subpoenaed Trump to turn over all classified documents that he had kept to the Justice Department.

Trump instead sought to “obstruct” the investigation and “conceal” his possession of classified documents, according to the indictment.

Trying to evade the investigators, Trump initially proposed that his lawyer simply tell them that “there are no documents,” the indictment says.

Trump eventually agreed to let one of his lawyers search for the documents. But before the lawyer could begin his review, Trump had his aide Walt Nauta move dozens of boxes from a storage room to his residence, concealing the documents from his own attorneys.

Finally, on June 3, 2022, Trump’s lawyers turned over 38 additional classified documents, but the alleged concealment led the lawyers to tell the Justice Department that a “diligent search” of Mar-a-Lago had been conducted and no additional documents remained on the premises.

This certification was false, prosecutors say. According to the indictment, Trump knew that not all of the documents had been returned to the Justice Department.

Things came to a head that August when the FBI executed a search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, seizing an additional 102 classified documents from Trump’s office and a storage room.

The unprecedented search of a former president’s home prompted Trump and his allies to accuse the Biden administration of “weaponizing” the Justice Department and the FBI to go after its enemies. Administration officials denied the accusation.

Classified documents

In all, prosecutors have retrieved more than 300 classified government documents from Trump. The documents bear various classification markings, from confidential and secret to top secret/sensitive compartmented information — the highest level of classification.

The government has not disclosed the content of the documents, but prosecutors have highlighted their subject matter. According to the indictment, the documents “included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; the potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.”

The indictment lists 37 documents that Trump “willfully retained” and failed to return to the government. They were produced by various U.S. intelligence and security agencies, including the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI.

Classification dispute

As president, Trump had access to all classified government documents. But after his term ended, he was not authorized to possess or retain them, prosecutors say.

To view national security documents, former presidents can seek a waiver of the “need to know'' requirement. Trump “did not obtain any such waiver after his presidency,” the indictment says.

Trump has claimed he had a "standing order" to declassify all documents taken from the Oval Office to the White House residence, suggesting that the government records found in his possession were declassified.

While Trump had the authority to declassify any government document as president, some legal experts have questioned his assertion about a blanket order.

What is more, prosecutors say the former president knew the documents he had taken to Mar-a-Lago remained classified.

The indictment cites two occasions during which Trump showed secret documents to unauthorized individuals while acknowledging they were classified.

In July 2021, during an audio-recorded meeting at his New Jersey golf club with former chief of staff Mark Meadows and the publisher of Meadow's upcoming memoir, Trump allegedly showed a “plan of attack” that he claimed had been prepared for him by the Pentagon and senior military officials. Describing the plan as “highly confidential” and “secret,” Trump said, “As president I could have declassified it,” adding that “Now, I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

Then in August or September 2021, Trump allegedly showed a representative of his political action committee a classified map related to a military operation, telling the representative that Trump “should not be showing it to (him) and that (he) should not get too close,” according to the indictment. The representative did not have a security clearance.

Federal indictment

The indictment accuses Trump of violating seven separate laws, including 31 counts of “willful retention” of national defense information under the Espionage Act.

Each violation of the Espionage Act provision is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The six other charges are for conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding and corruptly concealing a document or record, concealing a document in a federal investigation, and concealing his possession of classified documents from the FBI and the grand jury.

The charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding and corruptly concealing a document or record, and concealing a document in a federal investigation carry up to 20 years in prison.

The final count of “scheme to conceal” carries a maximum term of five years.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Other cases

To undercut the legitimacy of the indictment, Trump and his allies have criticized the Justice Department, saying it has allowed other officials, such as President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence, to get away with mishandling classified documents.

But legal experts say the Trump case is different from theirs. Biden’s lawyers have said they gave back 16 classified documents as soon as they found them at Biden’s former office in Washington and his home in Delaware.

About a dozen classified documents were found at Pence’s home in Indiana and were turned over to NARA.

Neither Biden nor Pence is accused of “willfully retaining” the documents and refusing to give them back.

A special counsel, Robert Hur, is examining Biden’s handling of the documents.

But even if Biden is found to have mishandled classified documents, he would probably not face any charges because the Justice Department has long taken the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted, says Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department official who is now a managing director at Kroll, a risk consult firm.

“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.

The Justice Department told Pence this month it had closed its investigation and would not charge him.

Presidential campaign

John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor who is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, said no laws bar Trump from running for president, even if he is found guilty.

"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.