Trump makes historic court appearance, pleads not guilty

Washington: Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to charges that he broke the law dozens of times by hiding classified documents in his Florida home as he was formally arraigned at a Miami court, becoming the first former US president to face federal criminal charges.   Wearing a navy suit and red tie, Trump, 77, was brought in about 15 minutes before the hearing began on Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Miami, Florida, and sat slumped over in his chair, hands clasped in his lap, as he waited for the judge to arrive.

Trump’s son, Eric Trump, accompanied his father to the courthouse for the historic case that could alter the country’s political and legal landscape ahead of the 2024 race for the White House.

Trump, who has announced his second bid for the presidency, looked down at the floor for most of the hearing and his lawyer waived a reading of the 49-page indictment, ABC News reported.

Trump, who has announced his second bid for the presidency, looked down at the floor for most of the hearing and his lawyer waived a reading of the 49-page indictment, ABC News reported.

Federal prosecutors accused Trump, a Republican, of wilfully withholding classified documents obtained during his presidency and obstructing justice in his efforts to conceal those materials from authorities, as a detailed indictment unsealed on Friday. The former president was charged with 37 federal counts, including 31 violations of the Espionage Act.

“We most certainly enter a plea of not guilty,” Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche said at the arraignment in a small but packed courtroom.

Flanked by two of his lawyers, Blanche and Christopher Kise, the former president listened impassively as US Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman said he planned to order the former president not to have any contact with witnesses in the case — or his co-defendant, Waltine “Walt” Nauta — as the case proceeds. Trump did not speak except to whisper to Blanche and Kise.

Blanche objected to the judge’s proposal, saying that Nauta and a number of witnesses are members of Trump’s staff or security detail who rely on him for their livelihood. The facts of the case, Blanche said, revolve around “everything in President Trump’s life.” The judge relented somewhat, saying that Trump should not speak to Nauta or witnesses about the facts of the case. As to which Trump employees might be affected by the restriction, the judge instructed the prosecution team to provide a list.

During the hearing, Goodman repeatedly referred to Trump as the “former president,” while his attorneys referred to him as “President Trump.” Nauta did not enter a plea, because he did not have a local Florida lawyer to represent him. An arraignment for him was scheduled for June 27.

There was no discussion during the 45-minute court hearing of when, or where, Trump must next appear in court.

Nauta served in the White House before and during Trump’s presidency and then followed him to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s home and private club in Palm Beach. He is charged with conspiring with Trump to hide some of the classified documents from the government agents trying to recover them.

The first former US president to stand accused of federal crimes, Trump could be sentenced to years in prison if found guilty. He publicly attacked special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the investigation, in the hours before his court appearance, calling the veteran prosecutor a “thug” and a “lunatic” in social media posts.

Smith, who was tapped by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November, sat in the courtroom on Tuesday but did not speak at the hearing.

While Tuesday’s court appearance was the second time in a little over two months that Trump had pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in a courtroom – he also pleaded not guilty in April to charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney – the federal charges are a more serious legal threat to the former president, CNN said.

Trump, who is again seeking the Republican presidential nomination, faces the prospect of sitting at a defendant’s table for federal and state trials that may overlap with the presidential primaries or nominating conventions.

The former president and his body man Walt Nauta shuffled boxes containing the classified documents around Mar-a-Lago for months in an effort to elude federal authorities, moving the material from a ballroom to a bedroom, bathroom and storage room, the indictment says.

At Trump’s direction, prosecutors allege, Nauta also hid some of the material from the former president’s attorneys, causing them to wrongly tell the Justice Department and FBI in June 2022 that a “diligent search” in response to a grand jury subpoena had yielded only a few dozen documents.

The FBI in August seized more than 100 classified documents kept in Trump’s private residence.

Meanwhile, Trump received a hero’s welcome on Tuesday night as he returned to his New Jersey golf club for a private fundraiser after pleading not guilty.

Trump told a couple of hundred supporters he had undergone “political persecution like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation.” “They ought to drop this case immediately because they’re destroying the country,” the 45th president said during his 30-minute address.

Trump alleged — without evidence — that President Joe Biden ordered his prosecution. He attacked special counsel Jack Smith as “a deranged lunatic.” “Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country. It’s a very sad thing to watch,” he said. “A corrupt sitting president had his top political opponents arrested on fake and fabricated charges of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty.” Trump, who turns 77 on Wednesday, briefly paused his diatribe just before the halfway point of his speech as the spectators sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

“Nice birthday, isn’t it?” he groused. “They were saying ‘Happy Birthday’ I was with [son] Eric and [daughter-in-law] Lara and the kids — ‘Happy Birthday, Grandpa’ — and I said ‘Oh great, just got charged with’ — they went for 400 years approximately [in prison].” The former president, who is the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, argued he faces a double standard compared to Biden, whose handling of classified records from his vice presidency and Senate years is also under investigation by special counsel Robert Hur.

“Hillary Clinton broke the law. And she didn’t get indicted,” Trump said. “Joe Biden broke the law and in many other ways we’re finding out and so far has not gotten indicted. I did everything right and they indicted me”.

Trump argued that he refused to return the classified documents from Mar-a-Lago when asked to do so by the National Archives because he hadn’t found the time to go through the papers.

“Many people have asked me why I had these boxes, why did you want them? The answer, in addition to having every right under the Presidential Records Act, is that these boxes were containing all types of personal belongings — many, many things — shirts and shoes and everything … clothing, memorabilia and much much more,” Trump said.

“I hadn’t had a chance to go through all the boxes. It’s a long tedious job — takes a long time, which I was prepared to do, but I have a very busy life.” Trump said that Biden’s handling of classified records, some of which were stashed in his Wilmington garage, was worse.

“Classified documents were strewn all over his garage floor where his now-famous Corvette is stored. He’s so proud of that car. There was no security and the door was left open most of the time,” he said.

The ex-president argued that the Biden administration indicted him in a historical first to “distract” from corruption allegations linked to the first family’s foreign business dealings, including the recently surfaced allegation that then Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter received USD 5 million apiece in bribes to do the bidding of corrupt Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings.

“(It’s” no coincidence that these charges against me came down the very same day evidence revealed Joe Biden took a USD 5 million bribe from Ukraine,” Trump said.

The former president sought to recast his federal criminal case as a potential boon to his candidacy.

The White House declined to comment on the case Tuesday during a press briefing and Biden answered “no” when asked if he would share his reaction to the arraignment.

Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters clashed outside the Miami courthouse during the day, and one man with a “Lock him up” sign was arrested for trying to halt the former president’s motorcade as it departed.