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Historians, legal scholars react to news of Donald Trump’s classified document indictment

People walk outside the C. Clyde Atkins Federal Courthouse building in Miami, Friday, June 9, 2023. Former President Donald Trump’s historic criminal case on felony charges of mishandling classified documents is set to likely unfold in Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Historians and legal scholars watched closely Friday afternoon as the federal indictment against Donald J. Trump was unsealed, revealing 37 charges against the former president and detailed accusations that he improperly stored and shared classified documents after leaving the White House.

Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024, is the first former president to face federal charges. The indictment says Trump stored dozens of boxes of records at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence, and willfully shared classified military information with people who lacked proper security clearance.

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The indictment also describes Trump telling his lawyer that he wanted to defy a grand jury subpoena for all of the classified material kept at Mar-a-Lago, saying it would be better “if we just told them we don’t have anything here,” according to the indictment.

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Legal experts said the details outlined in the indictment show Trump was intentional in keeping the material and knowingly broke the law.

“Trump did not mishandle documents, as some of his allies suggest, but, as detailed in the indictment, he deliberately took national security documents, stored them in public places (sometimes), misled investigators and prosecutors, and lied about what he was doing,” Michael J. Gerhardt, the Burton Craige Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at University of North Carolina Law School, said by e-mail Friday afternoon.

“The details in the indictment underscore just how aberrant his conduct has been from other presidents. The difficulty Trump faces is that his misconduct was so clearly criminal – and unashamedly so.”

Scholars who spoke with the Globe agreed that the indictment was an affirmation of a fundamental principle of the nation’s criminal justice system — the law applies equally to all — and not an act of political retaliation by the Biden administration.

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Some noted that the criminal case is rooted in the effort by the National Archives to enforce the Presidential Records Act and its mandate that documents generated during a presidency belong not to the individual, but the nation.

Nigel Hamilton, a historian at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the votes to impeach Trump fell almost entirely along party lines. In contrast, the federal indictments rely on a law that has applied to every occupant of the White House since 1978. The indictment against Trump was voted on by a grand jury in the southern district of Florida, where his Mar-a-Lago estate is located.

“The great strength of democracy is that the law is being asserted here, not what you can do in Congress in terms of rounding up enough votes,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton has spent his career studying records in presidential archives and libraries. He said he was “utterly flabbergasted” to read the indictment and details of how the documents had been handled.

“The sheer arrogance and incompetence of the former president in the way that he went about this theft and withholding material is really mindboggling,” he said. “I’m sure [Trump] will go down in history for many things, but for this he will have a special place in history.”

Prosecutors said some documents stored at Mar-a-Lago contained military secrets, including defense and weapons capabilities of the US and other countries, as well as information about US nuclear programs, possible vulnerabilities of the US and its allies to military attack, and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.

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Hamilton said the indictment shows that Trump, once he left the White House, “felt absolutely no concern whatsoever to with national security when people’s lives are at stake.”

“I think this is a huge embarrassment to the State Department, which is probably trying to reassure our allies” about the how US government keeps military and other classified information secure, he said.

Manisha Sinha, a presidential historian at the University of Connecticut, said “it is important for the functioning of our institutions and democracy to hold Trump accountable.”

“It’s a good precedent to show that even if you become president of the United States, you are indeed liable for anything that you did that may be illegal, that may compromise the national security of the country,” she said.

Sinha said the words of Abraham Lincoln must serve as a guide as the US government prosecutes a former leader.

“We have to figure out how to uphold our institutions and the democratic system that is going to outlast Trump and his critics and all of us,” she said. ‘That’s the experiment that Lincoln said American citizens owe their loyalty to — not one man, not one party, but their public institutions.”

Allen C. Guelzo, director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University, agreed with other historians who saw the indictments as a vindication of the rule of law.

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“Anyone who wants to suggest that the president somehow floats above this, or has some special dispensation because they view themselves as being a tribune of the people, that’s a real threat to democracy,” Guelzo said.

Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe used one sentence to express his view of the indictment of Trump, whom Tribe consistently criticized during his term in office.

“At long last, the republic strikes back,” he posted on Twitter.

Tribe wrote that the federal charges are “a sad historical marker unlikely ever to be matched.”

“Already the only president to be impeached twice, Trump has now been indicted twice— including, now, by the nation he once led,” Tribe and Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, wrote in a posting on the Bulwark website.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in New York City to a 34-count state indictment for allegedly paying $130,000 to an adult film actress and masking the payments in corporate records.

“Although innocent until proven guilty, Trump now faces grave consequences for his conduct, consequences he famously predicted he could escape for any wrongdoing,” Tribe and Aftergut wrote. “Two prosecutors have now given the lie to that boast, as has a system of government whose centerpiece for 234 years has been the rule of law. We have ‘a republic,’ Benjamin Franklin said, and today, a second grand jury composed of ordinary citizens has affirmed that it wishes to keep it.”

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On Twitter, presidential historian Michael Beschloss wrote that the president “has no more basic job than protecting national security ... And if Trump knowingly mishandled classified documents, maybe jeopardizing American lives, that’s about as serious as it can get.”

Beschloss also raised several questions he said need to be answered.

“We need to know: Why did he keep classified documents, despite repeated polite requests to return them to National Archives? If he lied about it, why? Did he pass secrets to foreign governments? Sell for cash? Where are the missing documents? Americans’ lives depend on this.”



John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him @JREbosglobe. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.