The Classified Documents Case
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
Federal prosecutors, led by special counsel Jack Smith, have accused Trump of taking highly sensitive national security documents when he left the White House in January 2021. He stashed those documents haphazardly throughout his Mar-a-Lago resort and obstructed the government’s repeated attempts to retrieve them, prosecutors allege. On at least two occasions, Trump showed classified documents to individuals who were not authorized to view them, prosecutors say. During one of those episodes — which was audio-recorded — Trump allegedly said, “As president I could have declassified it” but “now I can’t,” adding that the document he was displaying to others was “still a secret.”
In early 2022, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Trump’s retention of classified documents after his presidency. In June 2022, a Trump lawyer avowed that Trump had turned over all classified records, but two months later, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and seized 102 documents with classified markings. Smith was appointed in November 2022 to lead the investigation, and for months, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., reviewed evidence and heard testimony — including testimony from some of Trump’s own lawyers. Smith’s team then sought an indictment from a grand jury in Florida. On June 9, 2023, that indictment was unsealed, charging Trump with 37 felonies and his longtime aide, Walt Nauta, with six felonies.
Trump is scheduled to turn himself into authorities and have an initial court appearance on June 13, 2023.
The Espionage Act makes it a crime to retain records containing sensitive national security information. The first 31 counts against Trump arise from 31 specific documents that he allegedly hoarded at Mar-a-Lago and refused to give back, even though he was no longer entitled to possess them after his presidency. Of the 31 documents, 30 were marked classified, and many concerned foreign military capabilities, military activities or nuclear weapons, according to the indictment. The remaining six felony counts arise from Trump’s alleged efforts to stymie the investigation, including directing Nauta to move boxes in the hope that neither Trump’s own lawyers nor the FBI would discover some of the classified documents.
Most legal experts, including conservatives, have described Smith’s indictment as laying out an exceptionally persuasive case. It contains evidence from Trump’s own statements — including one caught on tape — that he knew he was not authorized to retain classified material but did so anyway. Evidence of obstruction — including instructing Nauta to move boxes and apparently suggesting to his lawyer that he conceal documents from the FBI — is similarly compelling.
Trump also seems to have publicly admitted that he knowingly held onto the documents after he left the White House. During a CNN town hall in May 2023, Trump said he “took the documents” because he was “allowed to.” In fact, the Presidential Records Act makes clear that presidential documents are property of the federal government, not an outgoing president. And multiple federal laws tightly control how classified documents can be viewed and stored.
While he was president, Trump had broad authority to declassify documents. If Trump could show that he declassified the records at issue before he left the White House, he may be able to undermine the charges. To date, however, there is no evidence that Trump did so.
The prosecution received an unlucky break when the case was assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who has a history of issuing rulings that are highly favorable to Trump. If Cannon continues to preside over the case, she will have broad authority over both the pace of the proceedings and a slew of pretrial litigation, such as potential disputes over whether information obtained from Trump’s lawyers can be admitted as evidence.
Trump’s legal team
Corcoran took detailed notes about his interactions with Trump during the documents probe. A judge ordered Corcoran to turn over the notes to prosecutors under the so-called crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege. The notes became crucial evidence to support the indictment.
Trump aide and co-defendant
Nauta is Trump’s longtime “body man.” Prosecutors say he became Trump’s co-conspirator in efforts to hide the classified documents.