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Trump says he’s been indicted again: The Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, explained

Here’s the background on the investigation that just led to the former president’s second indictment.

Former President Donald Trump coming out of a revolving glass door.
Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower on May 31, 2023, in New York City.
James Devaney/GC Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Former President Donald Trump is now facing his second indictment — this time, from the feds.

Trump announced in posts on Truth Social Thursday evening that the government had informed his attorneys that he had been indicted and that he should report to the federal courthouse in Miami Tuesday afternoon. The New York Times confirmed the indictment, citing multiple people familiar with the matter.

The indictment itself and its specific charges have not yet been released, but Trump wrote that it was “seemingly over the Boxes Hoax” — meaning, special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump for the classified documents held at Mar-a-Lago, which according to multiple reports had been nearing an indictment decision. CNN and the Times both reported that Trump has been indicted on seven counts.

Of the four criminal investigations into Trump currently unfolding, this would be the second to result in charges, after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of Trump for falsifying business records.

Smith is also investigating Trump’s attempt to remain in office after he lost the 2020 presidential election, but that probe has not yet resulted in charges. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is also probing Trump’s attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

The key fact at the center of the Mar-a-Lago case is clear enough: Trump had classified documents at Mar-a-Lago at the time of that search that were the property of the US government, and that had not been returned to the government despite requests and subpoenas.

But many of the bigger questions remain a mystery: Why did Trump keep the documents? What happened to the documents while he had them? What’s the evidence that he knew he was breaking the law? And did he knowingly try to deceive the government about whether he still had classified material — something that could open him up to an obstruction of justice charge?

The background of the classified documents investigation

A few months after Trump left office in 2021, the National Archives — the federal agency charged with preserving government records — reached out to his attorneys. Some official documents, which had been kept in Trump’s White House residence in two dozen boxes, were now missing.

A lengthy back-and-forth between Trump and the Archives ensued, and eventually, in January 2022, Trump agreed to return 15 boxes of documents that he’d been keeping at Mar-a-Lago. He reportedly personally oversaw which documents would be returned, and wanted to release a statement saying he’d returned everything the Archives had requested. But his own advisers didn’t believe him, and the statement was never released.

Then, when Archives officials reviewed the returned material, they discovered 184 classified documents, leading them to question whether national security had been jeopardized. Officials also weren’t convinced that Trump had really returned everything. That’s when the Archives asked the Justice Department to get involved.

Another months-long back-and-forth with Trump’s team ensued, this time involving DOJ officials and the FBI. In the spring of 2022, Justice Department officials subpoenaed Trump for any remaining documents, making their request now legally binding.

Yet Trump continued to want to hold on to some documents. In June 2022, DOJ investigators visited Mar-a-Lago to talk with Trump’s team; the former president himself briefly stopped by. The team showed investigators where some remaining records were being kept, but they maintained there were no more classified records in the bunch. One of Trump’s attorneys, Evan Corcoran, gave the government a letter — signed by another lawyer, Christina Bobb — claiming that Mar-a-Lago had been diligently searched and all remaining classified records had been returned.

The government had reason to believe otherwise. They soon obtained Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage that showed boxes of documents being moved from the storage area. They thought that classified documents likely remained on the premises.

Investigators discussed whether the FBI should conduct an unannounced search of the property, with some FBI officials reluctant, and DOJ officials in favor, according to a Washington Post report.

The DOJ got its way — and the Mar-a-Lago search took place in August 2022, electrifying the political world.

How federal prosecutors built their case

Prosecutors later claimed they found over 100 documents with classification markings during the Mar-a-Lago search — and they even included a photo in a court filing.

A redacted FBI photograph of documents and cover sheets agents recovered during the Mar-a-Lago search.
US Justice Department

But exactly what they found remained a mystery — because, well, the information is classified. The Post reported some documents had “highly sensitive intelligence regarding Iran and China,” including a description of Iran’s missile programs. Some reports have mentioned investigative interest in a “map” among the documents. The government has also expressed concern that the information could jeopardize human intelligence sources.

With little concrete information, the political world was rife with speculation about what Trump might have been up to. Was he selling classified material to the highest bidder? Was he trying to blackmail the “deep state”? These theories were never backed by evidence, but a Washington Post report that agents were looking for “nuclear documents” suggested this was monumental stuff indeed.

Yet a later Post story suggested that the more ominous and speculative theories about why Trump kept classified documents weren’t founded, in investigators’ eyes. They came to believe, instead, that his motive was “largely his ego and a desire to hold on to the materials as trophies or mementos,” per the Post. Of course, that would not get him off the hook for violating classified information law — many such “hoarders” have been prosecuted.

The warrant used for the Mar-a-Lago search cited three crimes that may have been committed: violating the Espionage Act (which criminalizes improperly retaining or disclosing national defense information), concealing government records, and concealing records to obstruct an investigation.

As the investigation continued — starting in November 2022, under special counsel Jack Smith — more and more focus was placed on the last of these: obstruction.

Smith’s prosecutors obtained extensive testimony about exactly what was done with the documents at Mar-a-Lago, and they eventually zeroed in on the role of one of Trump’s attorneys: Corcoran. He had given the government the false assurance before the search that Mar-a-Lago had been diligently searched and no classified documents remained there.

Smith’s team reportedly obtained evidence that Corcoran did this because Trump had lied to him. So, they wanted to get Corcoran’s account of what happened. To do this, they argued to a judge that attorney-client privilege did not apply because of the “crime-fraud exemption” — that the attorney was used by the client to commit a crime.

The judge, and a subsequent appellate panel, agreed with Smith and ruled that Corcoran did indeed have to testify. He did so in March, and also handed over a lengthy voice memo in which he recapped the Trump team’s internal discussions.

Investigators also inquired about other matters — such as whether Trump showed donors a map with sensitive intelligence information, and a pool draining at Mar-a-Lago that flooded a room with servers for the property’s surveillance footage.

There was a curveball when news broke this January that classified documents had also been found at President Joe Biden’s home and an office he’d used during the Trump administration — and another twist when it was reported such documents were found at Mike Pence’s home, too. (The Pence investigation has since been closed.)

Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the Biden matter, but there appear to be major differences between the two situations. Far more documents were at issue in the Trump case, and so far as we know, Biden’s team cooperated with investigators and handed documents over quickly, unlike Trump.

Recent leaks have revealed evidence in the case — but the indictment hasn’t yet been released

In the days before Thursday’s indictment news, a series of stories leaked out with new revelations about evidence Smith has obtained.

Last week, CNN reported that Smith had a 2021 tape in which Trump claimed to have a classified document related to Iran in his possession, but that he was not able to release it.

That’s significant because Trump’s allies have floated a dubious defense that he had already used his presidential powers to declassify all the documents in question. His comment on the tape could be interpreted to suggest otherwise.

Then, last weekend, the New York Times revealed Smith had obtained a detailed voice memo in which a Trump attorney recounted the team’s private deliberations. And on Monday, another CNN report revealed that prosecutors had suspicions about the pool draining at Mar-a-Lago that flooded a room with servers for the property’s surveillance footage.

Both raise the question of whether Smith thinks there was a conspiracy to hold back classified documents and evidence from the government — and whether he has evidence Trump ordered it.

Much intrigue has also focused on Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Meadows had testified to at least one of Smith’s grand juries (he had a separate grand jury focusing on Trump’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election results). But exactly what Meadows said was unknown. And the intrigue will continue until we get a better look at the indictment itself and its specific charges.

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