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Your 6 biggest questions about Trump’s latest indictment, answered


Former President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is being charged with federal crimes in connection with his alleged refusal to return classified documents to federal authorities after he left the White House.

Trump was already the first former president to face criminal charges and is now the first to face federal criminal charges. He was indicted in New York in April in a separate case concerning hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign. And the twice-impeached former president could face additional legal troubles given that he is the target of several additional ongoing civil and criminal investigations.

Trump said in a video posted Thursday to his social network Truth Social that he is an “innocent man” and framed the indictment as a political attack designed to undermine his 2024 presidential campaign. Other Republicans, including many of his GOP rivals in the primary, have repeated that defense.

“They’re trying to destroy our reputation so they can win an election,” Trump said.

Here’s what you need to know about the indictment and what comes next.

1) What does it mean that Trump was indicted?

An indictment is a document that lays out crimes a grand jury — a group of 16 to 23 people selected at random — believes someone committed. Trump’s announcement on Thursday means at least 12 members of a federal grand jury were convinced, given the evidence provided by the Justice Department, that there is probable cause Trump committed a federal crime and should face a trial if prosecutors continue to pursue the case.

The decision to indict doesn’t necessarily indicate guilt on Trump’s part; his innocence or guilt will be decided at a trial. It also doesn’t stop him from running for president. But during his arraignment in Miami federal court Tuesday, Trump will be put on notice of the allegations against him, which he is expected to challenge.

2) What are the charges against Trump?

The indictment, which was filed in Florida federal court, has not been publicly released. The New York Times reported that the indictment includes charges related to “retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and making false statements,” and possibly others.

We don’t know exactly what documents Trump may have withheld from government officials, but reports have indicated that there were some 300 documents marked classified, including highly sensitive US intelligence on China and on Iran’s missile program.

Prosecutors will need to prove that Trump knowingly retained the documents, that he ignored the government’s request to hand them over, and that the documents were still classified when Trump took them to Mar-a-Lago. They would also have to show that the documents were closely guarded because they pertained to national defense and revealing such information could have endangered the US or advantaged a foreign adversary.

The special counsel in charge of investigating the documents case is reportedly in possession of a tape in which Trump discusses having held onto “secret information,” according to CNN.

On the conspiracy charges, prosecutors will have to prove that Trump collaborated with at least one other person to plan to commit a crime and that either the former president or that other person acted upon it.

On the obstruction charges, the government will have to show that Trump knowingly withheld the documents sought by the National Archives, ignored the Justice Department’s subpoena requesting that he turn over documents marked as classified, and misled officials about whether he had turned over all such documents in his possession.

And on the false statements charges, prosecutors will have to prove that Trump either directly lied to the Justice Department about turning over all the documents or that he caused one of his attorneys or one of his co-conspirators to do so.

3) Could Trump go to prison — or to jail?

The charges carry potential prison sentences, though it’s not at all clear that Trump will even be convicted. Each count related to Espionage Act violations could carry a maximum sentence of up to 10 years. For the conspiracy and false statements charges, it’s five years per offense; for the obstruction charges, it’s 20.

But there’s a logistical question as to whether Trump could even go to prison given his required Secret Service detail and security concerns. These are uncharted waters for a former president.

Trump’s security needs similarly limit the court’s options for jailing him pre-trial, and as a candidate for president he would seem to pose little flight risk. He was allowed to return home following his arraignment in New York and is unlikely to be jailed this time.

4) What happens next?

Trump’s arraignment in Miami will likely follow a similar format to his arraignment in New York where he showed up in court to hear the charges against him and pleaded not guilty. He was fingerprinted, but not put in handcuffs and did not have his mugshot taken.

US District Judge Aileen Cannon, who Trump appointed in 2019, is reportedly overseeing the case for now. She was previously appointed as a special master to examine the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago last year and was criticized for delivering Trump several perplexing wins in those proceedings.

As with the case against him in New York, the Florida court case could extend well into the 2024 campaign season or even beyond the election.

5) What happened with Trump’s first indictment again?

Trump was indicted in April on charges related to hush money payments. The indictment includes 34 felony counts of falsification of business records to “conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”

Though the crime of falsifying business records can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor under New York law, prosecutors elevated the charges to felonies, arguing Trump falsified records with the intent of covering up another crime.

The indictment didn’t specify what that crime might be. But Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has said that his team believes Trump tried to cover up a violation of New York state election law, which prohibits promoting a candidacy by unlawful means, including “planned false statements to tax authorities.”

He could face up to four years in prison for the falsification of business records (though serving time would be unusual for first-time offenders) and possible fines if convicted. The next in-person court date is December 4, and the case is currently slated to go to trial in January.

6) What are the other ongoing investigations into Trump?

Jack Smith, a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department in November to investigate the documents case against Trump, is also leading a separate investigation into Trump’s involvement in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.

That inquiry follows a comprehensive House committee investigation last year that concluded that Trump had incited the insurrection and conspired to defraud the US government, referring him and other associates to the DOJ for prosecution. If charged and convicted on that basis, Trump could face up to 35 years in prison and more than $500,000 in fines.

A special grand jury also investigated Trump and his associates’ efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. The jury has transmitted its final report to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who will decide whether to pursue charges. From the outset of the investigation, Willis zeroed in on a phone call in which Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the votes necessary for him to beat President Joe Biden in the state. CNN reported that prosecutors are considering racketeering charges, which carry fines and a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Prosecutors are also reportedly weighing conspiracy charges, which carry a maximum sentence of five years and up to a $250,000 fine.

Finally, Trump faces a civil inquiry in New York centered on his business dealings. New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Trump, his company, and his three children for $250 million last year over alleged fraud, including lying about the value of the business, spanning a decade. A trial in that case is scheduled for October.

But even if all of these investigations may complicate Trump’s attempt to win the White House, federal charges could become moot if he wins. Under a longstanding Department of Justice policy, a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime. That’s why former special counsel Robert Mueller never considered whether Trump committed a crime as part of his investigation of Russian interference in 2016. But that policy technically only governs the DOJ, raising the unresolved legal question as to whether district attorneys could prosecute the president for state or local crimes.

Source: vox