Trump faces peril in docs probe after decades of scrutiny

Dec 5, 2022, 8:56 AM | Updated: 9:09 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — As a businessman and president, Donald Trump faced a litany of lawsuits and criminal investigations yet emerged from the legal scrutiny time and again with his public and political standing largely intact.

But he’s perhaps never confronted a probe as perilous as the Mar-a-Lago investigation, an inquiry focused on the potential mishandling of top-secret documents. The sense of vulnerability has been heightened in recent weeks not only by the Justice Department’s appointment of a special counsel with a reputation for aggressiveness but also by the removal of a Trump-requested independent arbiter in the case and by judges’ unequivocal rejection of his lawyers’ arguments.

It’s impossible to predict how much longer the investigation will last or whether the Justice Department will take the unprecedented step of indicting a former president and current candidate. But Trump is no longer shielded from prosecution the way he was as president, and some legal experts regard the Mar-a-Lago investigation as centered on more straightforward factual and legal questions than the prior probes he has dealt with.

“Unlike many of these past investigations which involved these complex financial frauds where prosecutors have to explain to a jury why the conduct is even a crime to begin with, here prosecutors won’t have that difficulty, won’t have that challenge to explain what the crime is about” if charges are ultimately filed, said former Justice Department prosecutor Robert Mintz.

One investigative hurdle for the Justice Department was lifted last week when an appeals court panel that included two Trump-appointed judges ended the work of a special master who’d been tasked with an independent review of the thousands of documents seized in the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. The decision enables prosecutors to use the entire cache of records for their investigation.

In a scorching opinion that reached deep back into history, the court acknowledged that a search of an ex-president’s property is extraordinary but not so extraordinary as to afford him special treatment.

“It’s not often you see cases cited in a court of appeals decisions that were decided in 1794, in the 1800s,” said David Weinstein, a Florida criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. “These are bedrock principles of law that have long existed that they relied on.”

Of course, investigations are nothing new for Trump, and speculation about his legal jeopardy has been off-course before.

Last year, state prosecutors in New York indicted Trump’s business, the Trump Organization, and its longtime chief financial officer — but did not charge the former president. In September, the New York attorney general accused Trump of padding his net worth by billions of dollars and misleading banks — but those allegations were made in a lawsuit, not a criminal case.

As president, he was investigated by an earlier special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, over whether his successful 2016 campaign had illegally colluded with Russia and whether he had tried to obstruct that probe. Mueller ultimately found insufficient evidence to allege a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia and also cited longstanding Justice Department policy that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president.

The obstruction prong of that investigation involved an analysis of constitutional law and the scope of presidential power. But prosecutors in the Mar-a-Lago probe have largely dismissed the relevance of Trump’s status as a former president, asserting during a court fight over the special master that the classified records he had access to as commander-in-chief don’t still belong to him.

And the appeals panel in its opinion last week rejected the idea that Trump was entitled to the return of the records seized from his home or to have an independent arbiter go through them, something it said would create a “special exception.”

The records investigation had simmered for months before bursting into view with an Aug. 8 FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, with agents removing roughly 100 documents with classification markings. By that point, Justice Department officials say they’d developed probable cause to believe crimes had been committed related to the retention of national defense information as well as obstruction.

The investigation has since shown signs of accelerating, with the Justice Department presenting evidence before a grand jury and granting immunity last month to a Trump ally to secure his testimony.

The probe is being run by Jack Smith, who previously led the Justice Department’s public integrity section and more recently has served as a war crimes prosecutor in the Hague. Smith is also overseeing key aspects of a separate Justice Department investigation related to efforts by Trump and his allies to undo the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney is separately investigating attempts to overturn that state’s results too.

Smith’s appointment by Attorney General Merrick Garland came three days after Trump declared his White House candidacy. The announcement won’t stop the investigation, though it may quicken the pace so as to avoid colliding with the heart of the 2024 presidential race.

His candidacy could theoretically infuse the investigation with greater import, said former federal prosecutor Franklin Monsour Jr., since it will no longer be just about a former president. “It’s now about someone trying to become president again, and trying to possess national security material again.”

Yet, legal experts expect the Justice Department to weigh more than just the strength of evidence in deciding whether to proceed with a case. There will be questions over how much classified evidence it can present to a jury — and the feasibility of picking an impartial jury given Trump’s ubiquitous name recognition and the impassioned reactions he produces on both sides.

A prosecution of a former president also risks being seen as political, further polarizing an already divided country, as well as transforming a court into a circus-like atmosphere.

“It’s basically weighing the principle that no individual is above the law against the practical political fallout that bringing these kinds of charges against a former president, particularly one who is once again running for president, will engender,” Mintz said.

“It’s an extraordinarily difficult decision,” he added.


Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Most Americans are sleepy new Gallup poll finds...

Associated Press

Most Americans say they don’t get enough sleep, according to new Gallup poll

A new Gallup poll found that most Americans are sleepy — or, at least, they say they are. Multiple factors play into this.

2 days ago

Near-total abortion ban in Arizona dates back to Civil War era...

Associated Press

Near-total abortion ban dates back to 1864, during the Civil War, before Arizona was a state

The near-total abortion ban resurrected last week by the Arizona Supreme Court dates to 1864, when settlers were encroaching on tribal lands.

2 days ago

Tracy Toulou...

Associated Press

How to tackle crime in Indian Country? Empower tribal justice, ex-Justice Department official says

A recently retired director of the Justice Dept. says the federal government hasn't given tribal justice systems equal recognition.

3 days ago

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson...

Associated Press

House Speaker Mike Johnson says he will push for aid to Israel and Ukraine this week

House Speaker Mike Johnson said Sunday he will try to advance wartime aid for Israel this week, along with funding for Ukraine.

3 days ago

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally Saturday, March 9, 2024, at Pullman Yards in Atlanta...

Associated Press

US shoots down ‘nearly all’ Iran-launched attack drones as Biden vows support for Israel’s defense

Joe Biden cut short a weekend stay at his beach house to meet with his national security team as Iran launched an attack against Israel.

4 days ago

Protesters in Phoenix shout as they join thousands marching around the Arizona state Capitol after ...

Associated Press

Abortion ruling supercharges Arizona to be an especially important swing state

A ruling this week instituting a near-total abortion ban supercharged Arizona's role, turning it into the most critical battleground.

5 days ago

Sponsored Articles



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

Trump faces peril in docs probe after decades of scrutiny