Donald Trump Pleads Not Guilty in Documents Case
Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to charges that he illegally retained and shared classified national-security documents after leaving the White House, launching the next phase of the unprecedented federal criminal case against a former president. Boisterous crowds of Trump supporters and detractors gathered outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. federal courthouse Tuesday for his first appearance there since a grand jury issued a 37-count indictment that already is shaping the 2024 presidential race.
Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, pleaded not guilty to all counts, which include seven different charges, including willful retention of national-defense information, withholding a record, false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. All relate to his handling of documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort, roughly 70 miles north of the courthouse.
Donald Trump speaking at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Tuesday.
“Your honor, we most certainly enter a plea of not guilty,” Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, said in court to Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman. Trump, who turns 77 on Wednesday, sat wordlessly through the hearing with a stony countenance and folded arms. After the hourlong hearing, he pursed his lips and frowned deeply before looking up at reporters and walking out.
Trump’s current aide and former valet, Walt Nauta, was charged alongside the former president on five of the counts as well as a false-statements charge. Nauta, who went to work at Mar-a-Lago after the White House, didn’t enter a plea during the same court appearance because he doesn’t have a local attorney. But Nauta’s out-of-state attorney, Stanley Woodward, was granted a two-week extension to hire local counsel. After Tuesday’s appearance, Nauta isn’t required to appear for his arraignment, which is scheduled for June 27, with Chief Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres.
Prosecutors didn’t seek any restrictions on travel or possession of firearms. Goodman allowed Trump and Nauta to remain free on several conditions, including that they have no communications with one another or with a list of people the government identifies as witnesses about the case. That could be a challenge. While prosecutors haven’t yet detailed who they might call at any trial, many of the witnesses they put before the grand jury are aides, lawyers and associates of Trump. Both Trump and Nauta had to sign bonds. While Nauta signed his, Trump blinked slowly and clenched his jaw.
Trump’s plea was the main event in a richly choreographed 24 hours of media attention after he arrived Monday evening at his Trump National Doral golf course. Media helicopters trailed his motorcade Tuesday afternoon as it sped through Miami, and after his court appearance, he re-emerged to stop at a famous Cuban restaurant for selfies. The focus remained on the former president as he was ferried to the airport for live television coverage of his Trump-emblazoned plane taxiing for takeoff to New Jersey.
The indictment is the first emanating out of the investigation by special counsel Jack Smith, who sat in the first row of the courtroom Tuesday. Federal prosecutors Friday unsealed a detailed, 49-page indictment, including color photographs, alleging the former president held on to documents he knew he shouldn’t have retained access to, shared them with others and directed his staff to help him evade authorities’ efforts to get them back. Former prosecutors have said the government has compiled a compelling case, with onetime Trump Attorney General William Barr calling it “very, very damning.”
Trump has scheduled comments Tuesday evening from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. He has denied any wrongdoing and used the indictment to seek campaign contributions. He has painted the indictment as a politically motivated effort to undermine him and his presidential bid, and some of his allies have called for payback. At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on questions related to Trump’s latest legal case, including whether President Biden had read the indictment against his 2020 rival, was surprised by Republican reaction to the charges or whether he might consider pardoning Trump.
When asked if Biden had any role or influence over the federal case against Trump, Jean-Pierre said, “Not at all. He was not involved.” In Miami, Trump supporters Kevin Pridemore and his wife, Heather Pridemore, of Fort Myers, Fla., stood outside the courthouse as news filtered out about Trump’s plea. “We knew that there’d be big public support but we didn’t think it’d be this big,” he said, holding a “Trump was right” sign. “We’re not saying that President Trump is above the law, but after Hillary did what she did and Biden did what he did, we can’t have a two-tier justice system.”
Not far away, Gregg Donovan expressed relief over Trump’s plea and said he expected him to win the election. Donovan, who calls himself the Ambassador of Hollywood, stood with a blue Trump 2024 sign, a black top hat with Trump’s photo on front and a gold chain around his neck with a sign that read, “In Trump we trust.” He called Trump’s indictment “the worst thing for the Republican Party since the assassination of President Lincoln.”
Earlier in the day, Scott Linnen, a Miami resident and Biden voter, spoke out against pro-Trump protesters, saying: “Biden didn’t try to overthrow the government, y’all.” “I needed to come down here today for this documents case just as an affirmation that we are moving, albeit at a snail’s pace, in the right direction…toward justice,” he said. The atmosphere was sometimes tense Tuesday outside the courthouse, where demonstrators exchanged profane chants and at one point authorities in bomb-squad vests were seen near the building.
It was Trump’s second time in a courtroom as a defendant since he lost the presidency. He was arraigned in April on charges stemming from the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into his role in a hush-money payment made during the final stretch of the 2016 election to a porn star who alleged she had an affair with him. He pleaded not guilty.
A prosecutor in Georgia has said she plans to present criminal charges related to efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election there. The special counsel is also investigating Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol by his supporters. Trump has denied wrongdoing in those matters. Trump was digitally fingerprinted during his booking in Miami but wasn’t photographed for a mug shot or placed in handcuffs.
Just hours before the hearing, Florida-based lawyer Christopher Kise formally said he would be among the lawyers representing Trump in the case. Trump’s associates have spent weeks talking to top criminal defense lawyers in south Florida, several of whom turned them down, according to people familiar with the matter. Part of the hesitation, some of the people said, is Trump’s record with his own lawyers, who at times end up in trouble themselves in connection with their work for Trump, or forced to serve as witnesses against him. The former president also has a reputation for not always paying his bills, including legal bills.
In South Florida, court rules dictate that once a defense lawyer has entered a court appearance on behalf of a defendant who has been arraigned, the lawyer can’t withdraw from the case if a client stops paying them, an obligation Kise highlighted in capital letters in his filing Tuesday. In a separate filing, Kise, who joined Trump’s legal team late last year, also asked the court to allow Blanche, a former federal prosecutor who is defending the former president against the Manhattan criminal charges, to represent Trump in the documents case.
Trump’s case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, whom he appointed to the federal trial court in South Florida in 2020. Cannon previously presided over a lawsuit the former president brought last year objecting to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s August search of Mar-a-Lago. Cannon granted Trump’s request to appoint an outside arbiter—known as a special master—to review documents seized from the former president’s residence and private resort. An appeals court panel later overturned her decision and disbanded the review process, saying there was no justification for treating Trump differently than any other target of a search warrant.
Cannon was assigned randomly to Trump’s criminal prosecution, people familiar with the matter said.