Donald Trump was due to surrender Tuesday to face dozens of felony charges of mishandling US government secrets, in the most serious yet of a firestorm of criminal probes threatening to derail his bid to win back the White House.
After a 25-minute motorcade journey from his golf course in Miami to the city’s federal courthouse, the former president is expected to deny 37 counts of unlawfully retaining classified documents and obstructing the government’s efforts to get them back.
Devoted supporters of the Republican leader have been out on the streets since the eve of the hearing, with security ramped up around the courthouse as police braced for thousands-strong protests and the possibility of violence.
“There’s never been anything like it. A witch hunt like this has never taken place,” Trump told a local radio station after arriving in Miami on Monday.
“When you look at what they’ve done, and when you look at the criminal acts and the horrible acts that they’ve committed, and then they come after me.”
The pugnacious billionaire, who turns 77 on Wednesday, is accused of willfully hoarding dozens of clearly-marked government secrets he took unlawfully to his beachfront mansion in Florida upon leaving office in 2021, refusing to return them and conspiring to obstruct investigators seeking to recover them.
He is also charged with sharing sensitive US secrets with people who had no security clearance, in a much more serious case than any he has previously faced — with charges that can carry decades-long prison sentences.
Appeal for calm
A small crowd of Trump supporters, some wearing red “Make America Great Again” caps, gathered early Tuesday outside the courthouse where Trump is due to be processed at 3:00 pm (1900 GMT).
“I’m here for the simple fact of the unlawful indictment of Donald J. Trump. I can’t believe he’s going through this again,” Lazaro Ezenar, 48, told AFP, referring to the criminal charges brought against Trump in a hush-money case in New York in April — a first for a former US president.
“This is historic and I’m just dumbfounded that, as a country that is a beacon to the world, I have to see this show that is disgracing what America represents.”
The runaway frontrunner in the 2024 Republican primary has vowed to stay in the race regardless of the outcome of the documents case.
The 49-page indictment, dismissed by Trump as “ridiculous,” includes photographs showing boxes of documents stacked at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach residence, in a ballroom and in a bathroom and shower.
Trump is expected to fly to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, after Tuesday’s hearing to restate his innocence in a speech before supporters.
His legal woes are only just beginning, as he faces multiple felony counts in the New York fraud case surrounding porn star Stormy Daniels, set for trial next March.
Jack Smith, the special counsel leading the documents probe, is also looking into Trump’s involvement in the 2021 US Capitol riot, and state and federal investigators are scrutinizing his efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
‘Eye for an eye’
Trump’s allies in Congress and rivals for the presidential nomination have largely circled the wagons following his latest indictment, decrying the “weaponization” of the government against conservatives.
Some Republican lawmakers have been criticized for rhetoric that could inspire violence, including Arizona’s Andy Biggs, who tweeted: “We have now reached a war phase. An eye for an eye.”
The Southern District of Florida is known as a “rocket docket” court, legal slang for locations that push for swift justice, and authorities have not ruled out completing a trial before the 2024 election.
Much of the focus in the preliminary proceedings will be on District Court Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who was allocated the case at random and will have enormous sway over how fast things move.
Another judge will oversee Tuesday’s hearing itself.