Trump sits silently in Miami courtroom, pleads not guilty in historic case

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Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Miami federal court to a 37-count indictment accusing him of deliberately keeping at his Palm Beach estate government documents that contained highly sensitive defense, weapons and nuclear information and of obstructing efforts by U.S. authorities to reclaim them.

In a packed courtroom, Trump entered his plea in a historic case marking the first federal prosecution of a former president and a potential hurdle in his renewed quest for the presidency in the 2024 election.

“We most certainly enter a plea of not guilty,” said attorney Todd Blanche, who was representing Trump in court alongside Chris Kise, a Florida-based attorney to the former president since last fall.

Trump was arraigned a day before his 77th birthday, appearing before Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman on the 13th floor of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Courthouse in downtown Miami. Trump was released on his own recognizance with no monetary bond and no travel restrictions. There were conditions that he not have any communications about the case with any witnesses. Prosecutor David Harbach told the judge that his team would prepare a list of witnesses with whom Trump cannot communicate about the case before trial.

Trump did not say anything during the 45-minute proceeding. Much of the time he was seated, hunched over with his hands clasped in front of him, with a stern and serious expression.

A heavy presence of security was seen inside the courtroom, with two rows of security personnel including Secret Service agents seated behind the former president. U.S. Marshals deputies were also in the courtroom.

Before the hearing started the courtroom was silent. At the end of the hearing, Trump got up and was escorted out a side door.

The indictment, returned by a Miami federal grand jury last Thursday, accuses Trump of willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

A former presidential aide, Walt Nauta, who continued to work for Trump after he left the White House, was also charged in the indictment. Nauta is accused of conspiring with Trump to obstruct justice, including hiding classified documents at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate and club as well as lying to FBI agents about concealing them.

Nauta didn’t enter a plea and his arraignment was postponed until June 27 because he did not have local counsel. He was granted the same bond as Trump and released on his own recognizance.

Shortly after 2 p.m. a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed that both Trump and Nauta had been booked. There was no mugshot taken of Trump and a public photo was used for the procedure, a U.S. Marshals official said.

Federal agents walk by the entrance to the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami. Former President Donald Trump is making a federal court appearance on dozens of felony charges accusing him of illegally hoarding classified documents.
Federal agents walk by the entrance to the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami. Former President Donald Trump is making a federal court appearance on dozens of felony charges accusing him of illegally hoarding classified documents.

The special counsel, Jack Smith, was in the courtroom but did not speak. The courtroom was full of members of the public, media, the prosecution team, Secret Service and other security officers.

In the indictment, Trump is charged with deliberately keeping documents with classified markings at his Palm Beach estate. It also cites two occasions during the summer of 2021 when the former president allegedly shared classified information about a Defense Department plan to attack a foreign country with a writer, publisher and two staffers at his Bedminster Club in New Jersey. He is also accused of showing a classified map about a U.S. military operation to a representative of his political action committee.

“The classified documents Trump stored in the boxes included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the U.S. and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation to a foreign attack,” according to the indictment. It noted that the former president stored them in various locations at Mar-a-Lago, including a ballroom, a bathroom and shower, an office, his bedroom and a storage room.

For Trump, who is running in the 2024 presidential election, the new indictment marks the first time that he has been charged in federal court but the second time he has been charged with a crime. In April, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged the former president with a series of fraud-related offenses stemming from paying hush money totaling $130,000 to a porn actress at the height of the 2016 election to prevent her from going public about their alleged sexual encounter.

‘Twists and turns’ ahead

Ryan Goodman, former special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense and a law professor at New York University, said there were no surprises in the developments today — “but the road ahead will have its twists and turns.”

“The most important variable now is whether Judge Aileen Cannon continues to be assigned to the case, or whether the damage to the public confidence in the courts will require her to step aside,” Goodman said.

Trump’s case, unsealed on Friday, was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Cannon. She was nominated by Trump and joined the federal bench just days after he lost the November 2020 election. Last year, she was widely criticized for her handling of his civil case challenging the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at Trump’s private residence. Cannon’s favorable decisions for Trump, including appointing a special master to review more than 100 classified materials found at Mar-a-Lago, were condemned by an appeals court in Atlanta that included two Trump-nominated judges.

“This prosecution will require a delicate balancing between the needs of the intelligence community to keep U.S. national security secrets safe during the discovery and trial proceedings and, on the other hand, the rights of the defendants not to be tried with secret evidence,” Goodman added. “It will require a judge of the utmost skill and integrity to maintain public confidence in the proceedings and to know where to draw the lines that the law requires.”

Robert Ray, a member of Trump’s defense team during his first impeachment trial, said that the former president’s attorneys are likely to delay proceedings in the case by raising constitutional issues.

“The government doesn’t have to prove damage to the interests of the United States — but as far as a jury is concerned, if this is just a mishandling of documents, I don’t find that to particularly warrant the heavy hand of the government returning felony charges against a former president. If harm did come to the United States, that’s a different story. And that has yet to be determined,” he said.

Other legal experts said the government’s case won’t rise or fall on Trump’s mere possession of the classified records, but rather his “willful retention of national defense information” in violation of the Espionage Act, with each count carrying up to 10 years in prison.

“That makes it very difficult to defend,” said veteran Miami criminal defense attorney Mark Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor in South Florida.

Schnapp added that the reason the case was returned by the grand jury in Miami instead of Washington, D.C., “is because Trump retained the documents here, not there.”

While Trump was inside the courtroom Tuesday, a group of protesters and supporters gathered outside the courthouse carrying signs and some wearing costumes.

Miami attorney Alan Weisberg, one of nine people from the public who got to see Trump’s first appearance, said he was struck by the eerily quiet courtroom atmosphere before the hearing began compared with the circus-like activities outside the courthouse.

“It was a routine hearing, but then you have to remind yourself that this is a man who was the former president of the United States charged with a very serious crime,” said Weisberg, a former federal prosecutor who went to law school during the Watergate era.

“He was a very different person in that courtroom,” Weisberg said. “He was not the bombastic politician you see at all his rallies.”