Federal prosecutors laid out an evidence-packed case in an indictment unsealed on Friday that former President Donald J. Trump had put national security secrets at risk by mishandling classified documents he took from the White House and then schemed to block the government from reclaiming the material.
The 49-page, 38-count indictment said the documents held onto by Mr. Trump included some involving sensitive nuclear programs and others that detailed the country’s potential vulnerabilities to military attack.
In some cases, prosecutors said, he displayed them to people without security clearances and stored them in a haphazard manner at Mar-a-Lago, even stacking a pile of boxes in a bathroom at his private club and residence in Florida.
The indictment included evidence vividly illustrating what prosecutors said was Mr. Trump’s willingness to hide the material from investigators.
In one of the most problematic pieces of evidence for the former president, the indictment recounted how at one point during the effort by the government to retrieve the documents, Mr. Trump, according to an account by one of his lawyers, made a “plucking motion” that implied, “Why don’t you take them with you to your hotel room, and if there’s anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out.”
Jack Smith, the special counsel who is bringing the case for the Justice Department, cast the investigation during a brief statement in Washington as a defense of national security. He urged Americans read the indictment to understand the “scope and gravity” of the charges, which he said were necessary to preserve “bedrock” democratic principles.
“We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone,” he said. The investigation had been conducted with utmost integrity, he added, and, in an implicit nod to the election calendar — Mr. Trump remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — promised to seek a speedy trial.
Mr. Trump and his allies continued their effort to portray the prosecution as politically motivated and unjustified, with House Republicans rallying behind him and arguing that President Biden had weaponized the Justice Department against his potential rival in 2024.
Mr. Biden stuck to his calculated silence about the prosecution, judging it best not to provide ammunition to Republicans who are trying to convince voters that he was behind the decision to charge Mr. Trump.
Both the legal and political ramifications of the first-ever prosecution of a former president could be profound, and he could face many years in federal prison if convicted.
Mr. Trump was charged with 37 criminal counts covering seven different violations of federal law, alone or in conjunction with one his personal aides, Walt Nauta, who was also named in the indictment.
The former president was charged with 31 counts of willfully retaining national defense information under the Espionage Act and one count of making false statements stemming from his interactions with federal investigators and one of his own attorneys.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Nauta were jointly charged with single counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding government documents, corruptly concealing records, concealing a document in a federal investigation and scheming to conceal their efforts. Mr. Nauta was charged with a separate count of making false statements to investigators.
According to a court filing connected to the indictment, prosecutors informed Mr. Trump he was a target of the investigation on May 19 and informed Mr. Nauta on May 24.
The indictment provided the clearest accounting to date of the files that Mr. Trump took with him when he left the White House, his lax approach to storing materials he knew to be highly sensitive, and the extraordinary steps he took to evade investigators and mislead even his own legal team.
It said he had illegally kept hold of documents concerning “United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.”
Prosecutors did not supply a motive for Mr. Trump’s actions, but described incidents in which he appeared to be showing off the material.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Trump shared a highly sensitive “plan of attack” against Iran to visitors at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., in July 2021 — and was recorded on tape describing the material as “highly confidential” and “secret,” while admitting it had not been declassified.
In another incident in September 2021, the indictment said, he shared a top-secret military map with a staff member at his political action committee who did not have a security clearance.
The filing includes many pictures of what appear to be bankers boxes, some containing highly sensitive national documents, which were moved by Mr. Nauta and other aides at Mr. Trump’s behest. Some of the boxes appear to be sagging — and on Dec. 7, 2021, Mr. Nauta found that one of the boxes had toppled and spilled its contents on the floor.
The files that splayed on the carpet included the designation “SECRET/REL TO USA, FVEY” — which meant that they were meant to be seen by officials from the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada with high-level security clearances.
Prosecutors said Mr. Trump had caused his lawyers to falsely certify a statement for the Justice Department last June that his legal team had conducted a “diligent search” of Mar-a-Lago and found only a few files that had not been returned to the government. Months later, F.B.I. agents with a warrant searched Mar-a-Lago, finding hundreds of pages of additional documents with classified markings.
In a previous motion, prosecutors said that the indictment was initially filed in secret to “protect against harassment and intimidation” of witnesses and their lawyers. The motion also said that Mr. Trump’s case was sealed at first “in relation to grand jury and other matters” still pending in Federal District Court in Washington.
In one example of how the documents were handled after Mr. Trump left the White House, the indictment said that in April 2021, staff members at Mar-a-Lago needed to move dozens of boxes of documents from a ballroom space they were converting to office space. “There is still a little room in the shower where his other stuff is,” one aide texted another.
Soon after, the indictment said, the boxes were hauled to a small bathroom adjacent to a Mar-a-Lago banquet room and piled up nearly to the tiny chandelier next to the toilet.
Mr. Trump is expected to appear in Federal District Court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon. He appeared to get one lucky initial break: The federal judge in Florida assigned to the case, Aileen M. Cannon, is a Trump appointee who issued sweepingly favorable rulings for Mr. Trump in an earlier stage of the documents investigation, only to be overruled by an appeals court.
But he also suffered another setback: Two of the lawyers representing him, James Trusty and John Rowley, resigned from his defense team, leaving the team in upheaval as he faces the most serious legal threat of his career.
The unsealing of the indictment by the Justice Department came a day after Mr. Trump confirmed on his social media platform that he was being charged in the case, the result of just one of the investigations that have put him in serious legal peril even as he seeks to recapture the White House.
Mr. Smith continues to scrutinize Mr. Trump’s efforts to reverse his election loss in 2020 and how those efforts culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. Mr. Smith did not address that inquiry in his brief public remarks on Friday.
A prosecutor in Fulton County, Ga., is conducting a sprawling inquiry into Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn his election loss in that vital swing state in 2020 and is expected to announce any charges this summer.
And Mr. Trump has been charged in New York in connection with a hush money case.
The documents investigation reaches back to the end of Mr. Trump’s term in January 2021, when the documents — many of which were said to be in the White House residence — were packed in boxes along with clothes, gifts, photographs and other material, and shipped by the General Services Administration to his private club and residence in Florida, Mar-a-Lago.
When the National Archives discovered he had failed to return certain records after leaving office, Mr. Trump was initially reluctant to hand back any material, despite persistent warnings from some of his lawyers that he could face serious consequences if he ignored the archives’ requests.
Mr. Trump eventually sent the archives 15 boxes of materials in January of last year. When officials at the archives examined the records, they discovered classified materials interspersed among them and alerted the Justice Department.
That discovery triggered the extensive investigation of Mr. Trump’s handling and retention of the classified records.
William K. Rashbaum, Ben Protess, Jonathan Swan and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.
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