Indictment unsealed: Trump faces 37 charges related to national security

A bombshell indictment sheet against Donald Trump has been unsealed: the former U.S. president faces 37 charges related to national security for allegedly keeping, displaying and then hiding secret documents.

Newest charges more serious, more sweeping than earlier accusations

A close-up image shows Donald Trump, wearing a dark suit and a red tie, looking past the camera while sitting in front of an American flag.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump, seen here at an event on June 1 in Des Moines, Iowa, has been indicted on 37 charges related to the mishandling classified documents. It's ignited a federal prosecution that is arguably the most perilous of multiple legal threats against Trump as he seeks to reclaim the White House. (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press)

It was billed as the gravest legal threat to Donald Trump and now we know why: He faces criminal charges that are sweeping in scope — and staggering in their severity. 

An indictment unsealed Friday details 37 charges against the former U.S. president, related to national security for improperly stashing classified documents, showing them off, and then lying to authorities about them.

The potential risk to Trump extends far beyond his 2024 presidential run. 

Put simply, in the words of a Fox News legal analyst, digesting on air what he referred to as a damning indictment: A conviction could result in Trump spending his final years in prison.

The case before a Florida court accuses Trump of storing secret information on U.S. nuclear programs, military vulnerabilities, and retaliation strategies of the U.S. and its allies — all kept at a property being visited by tens of thousands of people: Trump's Mar-a-Lago dwelling and club.

They were stored in a bathroom, a ballroom, his bedroom, a shower and a storage room. Some even sat scattered on the floor, including one document belonging to Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance that includes Canada.

Papers strewn on floor, protruding from a stack of boxes.
Documents were stored in a bathroom and other places at Mar-a-Lago. Sometimes they were mixed with newspaper clippings. Authorities allege sheets spilled out of boxes in this storage closet, including one secret document belonging to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes Canada. (U.S. Department of Justice)

The indictment further accuses Trump of improperly showing off these documents — to writers working on a book and to an ally in a political action committee.

In these conversations, federal authorities say, Trump explicitly stated that he knew he shouldn't be showing these documents, a potentially incriminating detail authorities will use in court.

One of those conversations was allegedly recorded.

"This is secret information. Look at this," Trump was allegedly heard saying, speaking to authors working with his former chief of staff on a book.

"Isn't that incredible? … As president, I could have declassified it. … Now I can't, you know, but this is still a secret."

He allegedly showed those authors details of a military attack plan against an undisclosed country, which U.S. media reports say involved Iran.

A staff member interjected, according to the indictment, to say: "Now we have a problem."

A large yellow and terracotta home is seen through a grove of palm trees. Scaffolding surrounds the home's central tower.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen on June 8, 2023, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Potentially, it turns out, a serious problem.

Several of the alleged crimes carry a maximum of 20 years in prison. The counts range from violations of the Espionage Act for wilful retention of defence documents, to corruptly concealing public records, to obstruction of justice.

In a months-long cat-and-mouse game with federal officials, the indictment says Trump instructed aides to hide documents, making comments like, "Wouldn't it be better if we just told them we don't have anything here?"

As he unsealed the 49-page indictment Friday, special counsel Jack Smith, the prosecutor, invited members of the public to explore it before making up their minds about the case.

"I invite everyone to read it in full to understand the scope and the gravity of the crimes charged," Smith said in a brief media appearance.

The charging document accuses Trump of imperilling the country's security, relations with foreign allies and human sources who work to collect intelligence.

Smith insisted his process was independent and apolitical, with the charges approved by a grand jury. He sought to pre-empt inevitable accusations that it amounts to a partisan political hit: "Our nation's commitment to the rule of law sets an example for the world."

Mindful of the looming presidential election, he promised to seek a speedy trial.

A man with a beard, wearing a dark grey suit and black tie, is shown mid-speech. Behind him is the red, white and blue American flag.
Special Counsel Jack Smith speaks to the media at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Friday, announcing the unsealing of the indictment against former U.S. president Donald Trump. Trump was indicted Friday on 37 counts in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, accused of keeping top secret files on U.S. nuclear and weapons programs and defence plans after leaving the White House. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The former president had announced Thursday he'd been indicted and ordered to appear in a Miami court next Tuesday.

As with all things Trump, chaotic news has kept coming: In the span of hours, Trump declared an aide, Walt Nauta, will also be charged; announced a shakeup of his legal team as some lawyers resigned for unstated reasons; and most — but not all — top Republicans furiously closed ranks around him.

"I'm an innocent man," Trump said in a video late Thursday. "This is warfare for the law. We can't let it happen."

So the breaker of political barriers is about to bust a new one. The first president to be impeached twice. He recently became the first ex-president charged with a crime. On Friday, he became the first ex-president charged twice, and the first charged with federal crimes.

ABC News reports that the judge assigned to the initial hearing has a history with this case; Aileen Cannon is the same Trump-appointed judge who sided with him earlier in procedural decisions that slowed the investigation, until she was overturned and criticized by an appeals court.

This is the gravest legal threat Trump has ever faced, the one most likely to rattle his political comeback and imperil his freedom. It's in a different legal league than his earlier arrest this spring on New York state charges of hush money payments to hide a sexual affair.

Even some vocal Trump critics questioned that earlier arrest, calling those charges weak. His former attorney general, Bill Barr, called it a miscarriage of justice. 

Two men wearing dark suits and red ties depart a flight on an airport tarmac.
Trump and William Barr, his attorney general, arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Sept. 1, 2020, after a trip to Kenosha, Wis. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Barr views this case differently.

"I've said for a while that I think this is the most dangerous legal risk facing the former president," Barr told CBS earlier this week, speaking of the documents investigation.

"From what I've seen there's substantial evidence there.… There's no excuse for what he did here."

Trump argues he had the right to take the documents and, if he's charged, why wouldn't President Joe Biden be too, given his own mishandling of numerous classified documents?

What makes Trump's case different, Barr said, is how his former boss behaved when federal authorities told him in 2021 they wanted the documents returned.

Media reports say Smith has been questioning people in Trump's orbit about whether he knowingly lied, and directed others to lie afterward.

"This would have gone nowhere had the president just returned the documents. But he jerked [the government] around for a year and a half," Barr said this week, while insisting he does not view this case as a witch hunt. 

He suggests this case could do actual political damage, as the public learns about it.

WATCH l Trump the 1st president to face federal indictment:

Trump says he's been indicted in classified documents case

4 months ago
Duration 1:57
Former U.S. president Donald Trump says he's been indicted on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate.

It would be a first. The former president has retained near-unassailable loyalty from Republican voters through past scandals. 

The earlier charges against Trump did absolutely nothing to dim his political prospects. He is crushing the field in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and, if anything, his lead has only strengthened since his first arrest. 

Even in a general-election matchup, early polls suggest a close race where Trump stands a chance of defeating Biden and returning to power on Jan. 20, 2025, just over 48 months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The only safe prediction at this point? His legal fight will become the centre of gravity in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, with everything orbiting around it.

Republican congressman: 'War phase'

Rival candidates will be forced to take positions: Are you with him or against him? Will you pardon him if elected, or not? Will you speak out on his behalf? What are you doing to fight back?

It's happening already.

One primary rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, immediately declared Thursday, with the indictment details still secret, that, if elected president, he would pardon Trump on his first day in office.

Trump's most serious primary rival didn't go quite that far, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced the indictment and promised to reform the Justice Department.

Congressional Republicans are hinting they'll fight back against the government, using their investigative power: "[We] will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable," tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Some are using more threatening language.

One Republican lawmaker tweeted: "We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye." Another Republican congressman tweeted what sounded like battle plans.

A sign on a stone building flying and American flag reads Department of Justice.
The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating whether Trump mishandled classified documents he retained after leaving the White House in 2021. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Fox News on Thursday night featured a parade of Trump defenders. There was no airtime in Fox's prime-time lineup for Trump critics like Chris Christie, or for former vice-president Mike Pence, who in media interviews is taking a more nuanced view.

On Fox, even occasional Trump rivals were rallying to his side. South Carolina lawmaker Nancy Mace — whom Trump tried to unseat in a primary — castigated the charges as political.

"Make no mistake," Mace said. "This is the executive branch tonight trying to take out their No. 1 opponent."

She predicted: "Joe Biden just secured Donald Trump's nomination." 

Watching the general public reaction

To be clear, Mace's remark notwithstanding these charges would have been recommended by a special counsel — appointed by Biden's attorney general — and would have been approved by a grand jury. Biden said Thursday he's had no information on the case.

One Trump ally called on rival primary candidates to suspend their campaigns and show up in Miami next Tuesday to protest — in support of Trump, their opponent. 

So don't hold your breath for a right-wing repudiation of Trump. The broader electorate, meanwhile, remains an open question.

Just 23 per cent of Americans believe Trump should be allowed to serve as president again if convicted of a serious crime, says a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll 

Let's see how serious they think this is.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.