Federal prosecutors have evidence Donald Trump showed classified documents to people, the Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing unnamed sources, as the investigation into his handling of national security materials and obstruction of justice approaches its conclusion.
The development could raise the stakes for the former president as it exposes him to serious action under the Espionage Act, of wilfully communicating national security materials rather than simply retaining them, which is rarely charged.
The movement of boxes in and out of a storage room at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, has been a key focus for prosecutors because that was where Trump’s lawyer, Evan Corcoran, concentrated when he searched the property for classified documents.
Corcoran found roughly 40 classified documents in the storage room and told the justice department no further papers remained on the property. But that assertion was called into question when the FBI seized 101 classified documents months later, including from the storage room in question.
The central question for the special counsel, Jack Smith, has been whether Trump arranged for classified documents to be removed from the storage room before Corcoran searched there, to illegally retain them, even though he had been told he could not, as the Guardian first reported.
When the chief US judge Beryl Howell forced Corcoran to testify to a grand jury, she opined in a 86-page legal memo that she believed when Trump went through boxes to give materials back to the National Archives last year, it was “apparently a dress rehearsal” for the subpoena.
The Post attributed the “dress rehearsal” line to officials, though it was in Howell’s legal opinion that was reported in March.
More importantly, it remains unclear if the special counsel has evidence that Trump’s response to the archives was a dry run to commit obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors have also developed evidence in recent weeks that Trump employees at Mar-a-Lago last year brought boxes of documents back to the storage room the day before justice department officials came to collect classified documents that had been subpoenaed, the Post reported.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, though his defence is framed around his near-unfettered ability as president to declassify documents. That argument is being viewed by the justice department as a straw man, because he is actually under investigation for retaining national security materials.
The statue at issue is section 793e of the US Code, which makes no mention of whether documents are classified. If prosecutors were looking to charge Trump with classified documents retention, as he claims, the statue at issue would actually be section 798.
A Trump spokesperson has previously said of the investigation: “This is nothing more than a targeted, politically motivated witch-hunt against President Trump.”
Trump is not the only public figure being investigated over the retention of classified documents. Joe Biden and Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-president, have also been found to have retained records after leaving office.
But Trump faces unprecedented legal problems.
The clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination faces trial on 34 criminal counts related to his hush-money payment to a porn star; was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation in a case brought by a writer who alleged rape; faces state and federal investigations of his election subversion; is the subject of the classified records investigation; and faces a New York state civil suit over his business practices.
He denies all wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of political persecution – a stance that has propelled him to a 30-points-plus lead in primary polling.
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