The Korea Herald


[Harry Litman] What Trump‘s indictment means

By Korea Herald

Published : June 13, 2023 - 05:31

    • Link copied

In one sense, it was breathtaking: The first ever indictment of a former president by the Department of Justice he once oversaw -- and therefore the most important federal charges in US history.

In another, it was expected. Once Donald Trump had received a formal target letter from the department, his fate was effectively sealed.

But that was only the latest in a series of recent signs that charges were inevitable. The months and years of questions about whether the Biden administration should or would indict the 45th and would-be next president -- and whether the department would stay its hand for politics, the good of the republic or some other reason -- were settled when Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel.

From that point on, the investigation of the former president’s retention of classified documents has followed the well-worn path that the federal government would tread for any defendant accused of behavior anywhere close to as brazen as Trump’s over the last two years. Smith pursued the case as he would have any other, and that led ineluctably to the indictment unsealed Friday.

Almost as unavoidably, it will also lead to the department urging a court to impose significant prison time on the former president if he is convicted. Trump’s last chance to bargain for less grave charges came and went in his lawyers’ last meeting with Justice officials on Monday. Now he is in the unenviable position of any other defendant charged with such serious crimes.

Indeed, the 37-count indictment includes 31 counts of the almost astonishingly serious charge of violating the Espionage Act, compounding the severity of the case and the sense of national betrayal. The government alleges that Trump willfully kept sensitive information about US and foreign defense capabilities and shared classified information with people who did not have security clearances.

It also charges a conspiracy to obstruct justice involving Trump and his valet Walt Nauta, who reportedly lied to FBI agents about the presence of sensitive documents, only to fess up during subsequent questioning. Nauta, who was also charged, is likely to be an important government witness -- and, given his long-standing loyalty to Trump, a very credible one.

The indictment also confirms that former Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran will be another important government witness, perhaps the most important. He is the source of a series of incendiary and incriminating statements that the indictment attributes to Trump, including “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes” and “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we didn’t have anything here?”

The relocation of the unprecedented case from Washington, to Florida is likely to make the case that much stronger. Although it may sound like a procedural detail, a defendant has a constitutionally guaranteed right to be tried where a crime was allegedly committed. A venue mistake could result in consequences as serious as a case being thrown out with no opportunity for retrial. So the department made the strategic call that the case should proceed in the Southern District of Florida, which includes Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and the scene of his allegedly illegal record retention.

The location also has the effect of underscoring the most damning aspect of the case for Trump. His knowingly taking documents from the White House was almost certainly criminal; his brazen and quintessentially Trumpian refusal to return them, even to the point of lying to the government and involving others in the concealment, was worse.

The venue does heighten the risk that an ardently pro-Trump juror will simply refuse to convict him on any grounds, which given the mind-boggling strength of the evidence might be the defendant’s only hope. But the justice system has already proved resilient, having produced another indictment of the ex-president, in New York, and an unfavorable civil verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case.

With the venue issue put to rest, and with courts in the Florida district known for moving fairly quickly, a trial is likely to unfold sooner if the Trump-appointed judge initially assigned to the case doesn’t cause unforeseen delays. It’s even possible that Trump will be convicted by a federal jury before the 2024 election, for which he remains the overwhelmingly favored front-runner for the Republican nomination, though his appeals would probably continue.

The Department of Justice has shown the necessary steeliness and dedication to make history in undertaking this prosecution of a former president. And with Smith still investigating Trump’s even more outrageous misconduct on and before Jan. 6, 2021, this first such prosecution may well not be the last.

Next week, meanwhile, Smith’s deputies are expected to take their places at the table near the jury box in a federal courtroom and announce their appearance on behalf of the people in United States vs. Trump. Whatever else happens in the coming months, it’s a proud moment and a banner achievement for the rule of law in this country.

Harry Litman

Harry Litman is a senior legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)