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Trump pleads not guilty in classified-documents case

Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to the first federal criminal charges brought against a former US president during an initial appearance to answer an indictment at a courthouse in Miami on Tuesday.

Trump has accused prosecutors of conducting a “witch hunt” in bringing the case over his alleged failure to return sensitive national security records after leaving office. Jack Smith, the special counsel appointed by attorney-general Merrick Garland to oversee investigations into the former president, was present in the courtroom, according to US media reports.

Describing the day as “one of the saddest . . . in the history of our country” on his Truth Social platform shortly before entering the courthouse, Trump declared: “We are a nation in decline.”

It was the second time this year that Trump was forced to enter a plea in connection with criminal charges after he was separately indicted by Manhattan prosecutors in March for allegedly falsifying business records.

The television footage of Trump’s secret service motorcade travelling to court along a closed stretch of highway in Florida was strikingly similar to the scenes that unfolded in New York just over 10 weeks ago. The indictments have the potential to upend the 2024 presidential campaign, with Trump the clear favourite to win the Republican nomination, while also deepening divisions among Americans.

Trump entered the Florida courthouse on Tuesday at about 2pm after travelling from his resort hotel in nearby Doral. He was arrested upon arrival before departing roughly two hours later. After the hearing, he stopped at a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami, Versailles, where he greeted supporters who sang “Happy Birthday”. He turns 77 on Wednesday.

He had landed in Miami on Monday night from Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is expected to return to deliver public remarks later on Tuesday. After his appearance, protesters for and against him gathered and in some cases scuffled outside the courthouse, waving flags and chanting slogans.

In a fundraising email to Trump’s supporters, his son Donald Jr said: “From the last conversation I had with my father, I can tell you that he has never been more committed to saving America.

“We are watching the ruling party attempt to jail its leading opponent. As of about 3pm today, America is no longer the same nation.”

Since the historic 37-count indictment was revealed, Trump has lashed out at the Biden administration and prosecutors bringing the case, labelling it “ridiculous and baseless”.

But legal experts said they were surprised by the breadth of evidence laid out in the Department of Justice case unsealed last week, which includes charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, concealing documents in a federal investigation and making false statements.

The indictment alleges that Trump illegally moved classified material to his Mar-a-Lago, Florida, residence after leaving the White House in 2021 and subsequently lied during the government’s investigation into the records.

Meanwhile, Trump showed sensitive records such as a US “plan of attack” against a foreign country to visitors while admitting it was a “secret”, prosecutors alleged.

The indictment included photographs of boxes of classified documents stacked in a bathroom and a shower, a ballroom and a storage room at Mar-a-Lago, his estate that is also a bustling events venue.

No travel restrictions were imposed on Trump, who will be released from Tuesday’s hearing without paying a cash bond, according to CNN. He was instructed not to speak to potential witnesses in the case.

The case will be heard by Aileen Cannon, a federal judge nominated to the bench by Trump. Last year, she granted his request for a “special master” to review the records seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago, although that decision was overturned by an appeals court.

The Miami court on Monday issued an order banning members of the media from bringing mobile phones “and/or electronic equipment” inside the courthouse on Tuesday.

Another defendant has been charged as an alleged co-conspirator: Waltine Nauta, a former White House valet who later became Trump’s assistant. Trump’s attempt to beat the charges could be complicated if Nauta decides to co-operate with prosecutors.

Nauta was not arraigned on Tuesday since he did not have a local attorney to represent him, media reports said.

If Trump is convicted, the maximum prison term for each count ranges from five to 20 years. But experts said it was unlikely that he would serve that much prison time, if he is jailed at all.

There could be more legal complications to come. Smith is overseeing a separate investigation into alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election, as is Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton county, Georgia.

Trump is using the criminal case to rally voters as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination next year. Joe Biden, the Democratic president, has said he will run again.

Biden is facing a separate investigation by another special counsel over classified material found in his residential garage in Delaware and a former private office in Washington.

Many of Trump’s usual political allies have come to his defence since the indictment, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. JD Vance, the Republican senator from Ohio who was endorsed by Trump in his 2022 race, said he would block DoJ nominees from consideration in the Senate “until Merrick Garland stops using his agency to harass Joe Biden’s political opponents”.

But others were more circumspect. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, refused to be drawn on questions about Trump at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, telling reporters: “I am just simply going to stay out of it . . . I am not going to start commenting on the various candidates we have running for president. There are a lot of them. It’s going to be interesting to watch, and I’ll look forward to seeing your coverage.”

Ken Buck, a Republican congressman from Colorado, told CNN on Tuesday he would “not feel comfortable with a convicted felon in the White House”.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor

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