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Trump’s Indictment and the Unknown
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Trump’s Indictment and the Unknown

Plus: The other Republican candidates’ wide-ranging responses.

Former President Donald Trump leaving Trump Tower on May 31, 2023. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)

Happy Friday! We thought we knew how this newsletter was going to go: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stopped by The Dispatch office yesterday morning for an interview about his presidential campaign. Then the news dropped last night of former President Donald Trump’s federal indictment for allegedly improperly retaining and mishandling classified documents. So look forward to hearing what Christie had to say next week!

Up to Speed (on the indictment)

  • Donald Trump said Thursday evening that he’s been indicted in the special counsel investigation involving his handling of classified documents he took with him after leaving office, and that he has been summoned to appear in a federal district court in Miami on Tuesday at 3 p.m. The DOJ’s move follows a Manhattan grand jury’s decision in March to charge Trump with falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments made ahead of the 2016 election to porn performer Stormy Daniels. The charges in the classified documents case are not yet public, but the New York Times reported they are expected to include a violation of the Espionage Act, obstructing justice, and lying to investigators.
  • Prominent Republicans rallied around Trump even though the indictment is still under seal. They accused President Joe Biden’s Justice Department of weaponizing the federal government against political opposition. “It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him. Joe Biden has kept classified documents for decades,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a statement. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far remained silent.
  • The House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, is already fundraising off the news: “The time is NOW for every PATRIOT like you to send a clear message that this injustice is unacceptable!” reads one fundraising text. “Will you be among the patriots who help House Republicans expose Joe Biden’s DOJ for this absurd WITCH HUNT?”

Up to Speed (on the rest)

  • As David and Mike wrote on the site Thursday, former Vice President Mike Pence formally launched his presidential campaign Wednesday with a pointed attack on his old boss. “I believe anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States. And I believe anyone who asks others to put them over the Constitution should never be president again,” Pence told a crowd of supporters in Ankeny, Iowa. “President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be given the same choice. I chose the Constitution.”
  • In a 5-4 ruling issued Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s GOP-controlled state legislature disenfranchised black voters by drawing a map after the 2020 census that kept that minority voting bloc concentrated in one congressional district. Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the court’s three liberals in striking down the map. The ruling, which will reverberate in redistricting fights beyond Alabama, will have a major effect on next year’s battle for control of the House: The nonpartisan Cook Political Report said it was shifting five House seat ratings in Democrats’ direction following the news, with two Solid Republican districts likely to become Solid Democratic ones.
  • A super PAC supporting Mike Pence’s presidential campaign released its first television ad on Thursday, criticizing former President Donald Trump for failing the “test of leadership” on January 6, 2021 and lauding the former vice president for having the “courage” and “character” to perform his constitutional duties that day. The one-minute ad calls Trump a “so-called leader” who “has continued to abandon our conservative principles” on issues like abortion and foreign policy.
  • Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin has ruled out challenging Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2024. Republicans looking for a strong general election challenge to the incumbent Democrat were hoping the congressman would join the race. The news was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Trump Opponents Scramble to Respond to Indictment News

Donald Trump is being indicted again. The former president—as he wrote online and the press quickly confirmed—is facing seven federal charges. He allegedly mishandled federal documents after leaving office and impeded government attempts to reclaim them. 

This bombshell news has been a long time coming: It was the classified documents investigation that prompted the FBI search of Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, last year. Although Trump had told federal records keepers that his attorneys had examined his papers and returned everything classified he had removed from the White House, investigators found more than 100 documents marked classified in the search. In the following months, the courts repeatedly frustrated Trump’s attempts to block the Justice Department from examining those records. Meanwhile, evidence emerged to suggest that failure was no accident: The Justice Department said it had obtained video footage, for example, of Trump staffers moving boxes containing government records around Mar-a-Lago before his attorneys did their voluntary sweep.

Trump attorney Jim Trusty told CNN Thursday that the central charge will come under the 1917 Espionage Act, which governs the mishandling of sensitive national defense information and specifically makes it a crime to “willfully [retain] the same and [fail] to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it.” Other charges, Trusty said, will relate to obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators.

Trump broke the story Thursday night with multiple posts at his proprietary social media site Truth Social, saying that the DOJ informed his lawyers Trump would be indicted “seemingly over the Boxes Hoax.” He cast the development as a political and hypocritical play by the Biden administration, insinuating President Joe Biden could be guilty of the same thing. Federal investigators under special counsel Robert Hur have been investigating whether Biden improperly handled documents himself after leaving office as vice president; Biden attorneys found and handed over a number of classified documents late last year.

Trump’s posts getting ahead of the story came as no surprise. In the days leading up to his March indictment in New York over apparent hush-money payments, Trump took to Truth Social to decry “illegal leaks” and warn of “potential death and destruction” should prosecutors move forward.

It was the same on Thursday. “I’m an innocent man. I’m an innocent person,” Trump said in a video on Truth Social. “It’s a hoax … It’s called election interference. They’re trying to destroy a reputation so they can win an election.”

His Thursday posts set the messaging for Trump’s campaign and supporters online, in Congress, and in the media—and sent his opponents scrambling to respond.

Trump’s top rival for the GOP nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, did not respond directly to the possible charges but tweeted that the “weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society” and pledged to “bring accountability” to the Justice Department.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the businessman, went farther in a lengthy Twitter post, bemoaning what he called “two tiers of justice” in America and promised to “pardon Trump promptly” if he is elected president.

In a brief appearance on Fox News Thursday night, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina decried “the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president.”

“As president of the United States, I would purge all of the injustices and impurities in our system so that every American can have confidence that they will be seen by the lady of justice with the blindfold on,” Scott said. “That is what we need in this nation, not more politicizing of the issues.”

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor, said in a tweet he would withhold judgment until an actual indictment is announced by the Justice Department.

“We don’t get our news from Trump’s Truth Social account,” he tweeted. “Let’s see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released. As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed.”

Meanwhile, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas told Dave Weigel of Semafor that Trump should “respect the office and end his campaign” in response to the pending indictment.

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota declined to comment when asked by The Dispatch. Representatives of the campaigns of Mike Pence and Nikki Haley did not respond to requests for comment.

UPDATE: In a radio interview Friday morning, Pence said that, “after years of politicization at the Justice Department,” he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward.” He also urged restraint, saying that “handling classified materials is a very serious matter” and that “no one is above the law.”

“My only hope,” he added, “is as we learn about the facts of this indictment next week, that the American people will see in this case that it would meet a high standard necessary to justify the unprecedented federal indictment of a former president of the United States by the current president of the United States’ Justice Department, and by a potential rival.”

Later on Friday morning, Haley tweeted that “this is not how justice should be pursued in our country,” criticizing “prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics.”

How Will It Play?

What comes next? Lots of people think they know. “The greatest irony about the justice system being weaponized to take down a political opponent,” former New York Rep. Lee Zeldin tweeted, “is that, as a result, the odds this evening have only gone up that the 45th President of the United States will be elected as the 47th President of the United States.”

This is a standard Trump-adversity narrative: Any attack on him by his enemies only strengthens his position with the electorate. We saw it last August when the FBI executed its Mar-a-Lago search. Irate Republicans argued the “raid” would trigger a GOP wave in the upcoming midterms and sweep away the simmering desire among some conservatives to move on from Trump and his stolen election claims.

On Election Day 2022, neither prediction came true. Republicans lost one Senate seat, fell short in gubernatorial contests, and barely captured a House majority. The mid-November launch of Trump’s third presidential bid was met with shrugs, top Republicans groused about his complicity in Republicans’ disappointing performance, and early 2024 primary polls showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis surging.

It’s impossible to know with clarity—on Friday, less than 24 hours after this latest indictment news broke—how the politics will play out in the months ahead, either in the race for the GOP nomination or in the general election versus President Joe Biden to follow.

Trump’s indictment in the federal investigation led by special counsel Jack Smith, appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, could redound to the former president’s benefit in his bid for the Republican nomination. After his indictment and arrest for alleged financial improprieties in New York, his poll numbers spiked. DeSantis is threatening Trump’s frontrunner status in Iowa, but the former president still enjoys a healthy lead nationally.

It’s entirely possible Trump emerges from legal jeopardy better positioned to win the Republican nod, regardless of how the federal indictment reads. That’s what some GOP operatives are expecting. “Republican voters, even those who want Trump to lose the nomination, rally behind him when Democrats and Democrat-controlled institutions try to end him through the monopoly power that only the state can exert,” a party strategist said.

But then again, we keep running into voters who are leaning toward DeSantis and some of the other Republicans running for president—and not because they are opposed to Trump, or fed up with his antics or the controversies swirling around him. Rather, they believe the Democrats will never stop targeting the former president, a dynamic they believe undermines their primary goal of ousting Biden in 2024.

Trump “gets things done—what he said he’s going to do, he does,” Gwen Clemon, a retiree who drove five hours roundtrip to get a glimpse of DeSantis in Sioux Center, Iowa, told us back in mid-May, before the governor announced his candidacy. So, why was she leaning toward supporting the governor in the Iowa caucuses? Clemon said DeSantis was simply more electable. “Unfortunately it has nothing to do with [Trump]. It’s the people that are bound and determined not to let him win.” 

Notable and Quotable

“As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t.”

—Trump in a November 2021 meeting according to a transcript obtained by prosecutors and reported by CNN on June 9, 2023

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Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

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David M. Drucker

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

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Audrey Fahlberg

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Michael Warren

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.