FLORIDA (AP) – Donald Trump’s indictment on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate has brought renewed attention to one of the most notable cases in Justice Department history.
The federal charges represent the biggest legal jeopardy so far for Trump, coming less than three months after he was charged in New York with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.
Here’s a look at the charges, the special counsel’s investigation and how Trump’s case differs from those of other politicians known to be in possession of classified documents:
WHAT ARE THE CHARGES?
Trump has been charged with seven counts related to the mishandling of classified documents, according to two people familiar with the indictment but not authorized to speak publicly about it. The charges themselves are unclear and remain under seal, one person said.
Trump announced on his social media site Truth Social on Thursday night that DOJ lawyers had informed his legal team that he had been indicted. He said he is due in court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon.
It was not immediately clear if anyone else would be charged in the case.
HOW DID THIS CASE COME ABOUT?
Officials with the National Archives and Records Administration reached out to representatives for Trump in the spring of 2021 when they realized that important material from his time in office was missing from their collection.
According to the Presidential Records Act, White House documents are considered property of the U.S. government and must be preserved.
A Trump representative told the National Archives in December 2021 that presidential records had been found at Mar-a-Lago. In January 2022, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of documents from Trump’s Florida home, later telling Justice Department officials that they contained “a lot” of classified material.
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.
In all, roughly 300 documents with classification markings — including some at the top secret level — have been recovered from Trump since he left office in January 2021.
HOW DID A SPECIAL COUNSEL GET INVOLVED?
Last year, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland picked Jack Smith, a veteran war crimes prosecutor with a background in public corruption probes, to lead investigations into the presence of classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate, as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
Smith’s appointment was a recognition by Garland of the politics involved in an investigation into a former president and current White House candidate. Garland himself was selected by Democratic President Joe Biden, whom Trump is seeking to challenge for the White House in 2024.
Special counsels are 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.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, a special counsel must have “a reputation for integrity and impartial decisionmaking,” as well as “an informed understanding of the criminal law and Department of Justice policies.”
WHAT’S AN INDICTMENT?
An indictment is the formal charge brought against someone after a grand jury — which is made up of members of the community — votes and enough members agree there’s sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime.
The indictment against Trump remains sealed. But once the document is made public, it will lay out the crime or crimes that Trump is accused of committing. Sometimes indictments include a lengthy narrative with lots of details about the allegations, while others are more basic and just outline the charges a defendant is facing.
DIDN’T BIDEN AND FORMER VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE HAVE CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS, TOO?
Yes, but the circumstances of their cases are vastly different from the situation involving Trump.
After classified documents were found at Biden’s think tank and Pence’s Indiana home, their lawyers notified authorities and quickly arranged for them to be handed over. They also authorized other searches by federal authorities to search for additional documents.
There is no indication either was aware of the existence of the records before they were found, and no evidence has so far emerged that Biden or Pence sought to conceal the discoveries. That’s important because the Justice Department historically looks for willfulness in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.
A special counsel was appointed earlier this year to probe how classified materials ended up at Biden’s Delaware home and former office. But even if the Justice Department were to find Biden’s case prosecutable on the evidence, its Office of Legal Counsel has concluded that a president is immune from prosecution during his time in office.
As for Pence, the Justice Department informed his legal team earlier this month that it would not be pursuing criminal charges against him over his handling of the documents.