Former US President Donald Trump has been indicted in the classified documents case. This is the second time he has been indicted.
Trump is accused of unlawfully keeping classified documents and revealing classified information from these documents to unauthorised persons.
A large number of classified documents have been recovered from Trump's private residence in Florida state. While his supporters in the Republican Party see the prosecution as a witch-hunt, his critics see the case as the pursuit of accountability for his actions.
Notably, Trump is not the only leader who kept classified documents at home. Documents have also been found at the private homes of President Joe Biden, dating to the time he was the Vice President during 2008-16 and former Vice President Mike Pence, who was Trump's deputy during 2016-20.
Here we explain what's the case against the Trump and how the case agains Trump differs from the case of Biden and Pence. We also explore at the possibility of Trump going to jail and its effects on his presidential bid and possible presidency in case he wins.
The classified documents case case against Trump
The case began in the sprint of 2021 when the US National Archives and Records Administration reached out to Trump after realising that important documents from his time in office were missing.
As per norms, the documents after leaving office are handed to the National Archives for safe storage and historical record.
A representative of Trump communicated to the National Archives in December 2021 that classified documents had been found at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. A total of 15 boxes of documents of were retrieved by the National Archives. In another round, three dozen documents were handed over and Trump's lawyers submitted that it was all they had. It turned out to be false as thousands of documents were discovered in later searches.
The Associated Press reported, "That May , the FBI and Justice Department issued a subpoena for remaining classified documents in Trump's possession. Investigators who went to visit the property weeks later to collect the records were given roughly three dozen documents and a sworn statement from Trump's lawyers attesting that the requested information had been returned.
"But that assertion turned out to be false. With a search warrant, federal officials returned to Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 and seized more than 33 boxes and containers totaling 11,000 documents from a storage room and an office, including 100 classified documents."
While no classified documents were supposed to be with Trump, the fact that several of these documents had top secret markings, which increased the sensitivity of the case.
After these discoveries, last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as the Special Counsel to investigate the case. The AP notes that the Special Counsel is appointed in cases "in which the Justice Department perceives itself as having a conflict or where it's deemed to be in the public interest to have someone outside the government come in and take responsibility for a matter".
What does the indictment reveal about classified documents?
The Trump's indictment in the classified documents was unsealed on Friday and it showed that he was indicted on 37 charges.
An indictment is a formal accusation of the accused, establishing the charges against him. It marks the beginning of the former trial. Once indicted, the next step is the unsealing the indictment in which the exact charges are made public.
The New York Times notes, "An indictment, whether it is handed up in federal or state court, is a formal accusation —not a conviction— and it is among the first moves a prosecutor can make to bring a case to trial. When a person is indicted in a criminal court in the United States, it means that a grand jury composed of residents chosen at random believed there was enough evidence to charge that person with a crime."
Trump has been charged with 37 counts, including 31 counts under the stringent Espionage Act. The four other counts are related to conspiracy and withholding or concealing documents and two remaining counts are for scheming to conceal and making false statements and representations, according to BBC News.
The information he allegedly kept unlawfully concerned US nuclear capabilities, military secrets, and spy satellites.
"The documents, according to the indictment, included details about U.S. nuclear weapons, spy satellites and the U.S. military. They were produced by the Pentagon and arms of the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and other agencies," reported Reuters.
The LA Times reported that it's also alleged that Trump showed those documents to persons without security clearances at least twice in 2021.
The report also said that Trump is also charged with ordering to not hand over the complete set of document to the authorities.
The unsealed indictment reveals that the documents were kept at unsecured locations at his estate, including in a bathroom and ballroon. Photographs of the same have surfaced.
The indictment also shows that Trump allegedly shared a classified plan of military attack with persons and also showed a classified map.
"Apparently, in July 2021, at his golf club in New Jersey, he told a writer, publisher, and two staff members about a secret attack plan. Weeks later, he showed an associate a classified map related to a military operation and told the person who was a representative as political action committee that he shouldn't have been showing it to that person," notes Jennifer Schonberger of Yahoo Finance.
How Trump's case differs from Pence's and Biden's?
There are two key differences between Trump's case and cases of Pence and Biden.
First, there is no indication that Pence and Biden willfully kept those documents. The key charge against Trump is that he willfully kept the documents and shared those documents with non-governmental persons.
Two, once the documents were discovered at Pence's and Biden's, they handed them over to the authorities. Trump never handed over the documents in full and a search after a warrant had to be made to retrieve the documents. Moreover, he is accused of ordering the withholding of documents from the authorities.
There is also the issue of size. Over 11,000 documents have been retrieved from Trump's Florida estate. The AP reported lawyers of Pence and Biden as saying that "small number" documents were recovered from their private places, including four boxes from Pence's and an unknown but small number of documents from Biden's.
What happens to presidency bid if Trump is jailed?
The charges against Trump this time are serious than his first indictment in the financial irregularities case.
The espionage charges, of which he faces 31 counts, carry a minimum of 10-year sentence.
"Legal experts say that the criminal charges against Mr Trump, who is running for president again in 2024, could lead to substantial prison time if he is convicted. Four other counts, related to conspiracy and withholding or concealing documents, each carry maximum sentences of 20 years. The last two counts - scheme to conceal, and false statements and representations - carry sentences of five years each," notes BBC.
Law professor Carl Tobias told BBC that the charges are "very serious" and the details that have emerged are very "troubling" that have made a "strong case" against him.
Tobias said, "These charges are extremely serious...Of course, this all has to be proved. But there's so much information [in the indictment] that seems persuasive to me, and could well be to a jury. Apparently it already was for the grand jury."
Tobias said that while a possible conviction could make the 2024 election problematic, it would likely not stop his participation.
"It could certainly be a problem for him politically if he's indicted, and certainly, if he's convicted. People may think twice about whether they want to vote for him. But I don't think that will necessarily prevent his participation," said Tobias.
Notably, conviction does not stop a person from contesting presidential election or even governing if they win as a convict.
"A potential candidate’s carceral status, however, is not listed in the Constitution as a requirement, nor is a candidate’s criminal record. A Trump who has been convicted by the state or federal government of a crime, then, is equally qualified to run as a Trump with no criminal record—at least from a legal standpoint," notes Slate in an article.
Not only run for president, The New York Post reported that Trump could even govern the country from his prison cell if he is imprisoned.
The Post reports, "Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, said Trump would likely be able to carry out the day-to-day business of the presidency — such as issuing executive orders and pardons, signing and vetoing bills and making political appointments — from lockup. He could even deliver the State of the Union address to Congress remotely or in written form, as presidents had done for a hundred years in the 19th and early 20th centuries."