When Special Counsel Jack Smith spoke to the nation on June 9 and “invite[d] everyone to read . . . in full” the indictment of Donald Trump, he was sharing his vision of the criminal justice system. Courts are designed to hold lawbreakers to account, not to bear the full weight of resolving our political dilemmas.
Courts can, however, inform citizens about the rule of law and about those who seek to defy it by trying to hide evidence and the truth from a grand jury. That is what Jack Smith’s “speaking indictment” is telling us. Rather than simply setting forth the bare-bones elements of the crimes charged, a “speaking indictment” lays out a fuller narrative of the wrongdoing in story form.
Smith’s “speaking indictment” of Donald Trump was speaking to Americans left, right, and center about the rule of law. And so, in addressing the country on June 9, Smith stated: “[T]he rule of law is a bedrock principle of the Department of Justice . . . We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.”
Smith has set out to prove at trial two important things above all others: first, that Donald Trump – unlike former Vice President Mike Pence or President Joe Biden—refused every invitation to return all the government documents in his possession after his term in office ended. Second, that Trump sought to keep them via ham-handed concealment.
This the rule of law cannot tolerate.
The indictment alleges that within hours of Trump’s lawyers’ alerting him that they would be searching a Mar-a-Lago storage room for classified documents to in response to a grand jury’s May 11 subpoena, Trump had his “body man,” co-defendant Walt Nauta, secretly move boxes of documents to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago residence. And it’s clear from the indictment that Smith has time-stamped video footage of Nauta moving the documents, often after phone calls with Trump.
Here’s how we know the indictment was intended to inform Americans about what’s at stake.
First, the 49-page indictment makes it easy for lay readers. Right up front on page three, it summarizes two central threads of evidence:
- Trump showed secret documents to individuals without security clearances, and acknowledged he shouldn’t be doing so, even on tape. That’s the best possible evidence any prosecutor ever gets.
- Trump caused his lawyers to submit to the government a false certification that there were no more classified documents at Mar a Lago on June 3, 2022. The August 8 court-authorized search turned up more than 100.
Neither is something Biden, Pence, or Hillary Clinton did. This is what got Trump indicted.
Second, the indictment’s photographs speak a thousand words to ordinary citizens about Trump’s willful indifference to exposing nuclear secrets, contingency war plans and the potential military vulnerabilities of our country and our allies. The photos depict Trump’s treasured boxes left on a Mar-a-Lago ballroom stage, in a bathroom and in an unlocked storage room feet from where guests, according to the indictment, attended fundraisers, weddings, and movie premiers.
Third, the indictment includes quotes from the former President that reflect naked hypocrisy to any ordinary reader and to the jury. To cite just one example, the indictment includes this Trump statement from his 2016 campaign: “In my administration, I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law.”
Finally, the indictment sets forth easily understood details, alleging for example that Trump did not tell his Secret Service detail that he was holding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. If proven, that fact completely undermines Trump’s legally unsupportable defense that he “had every right to take the documents.”
If that were true, why on earth would he not have told his highly trained government protectors?
In Jack Smith’s January 9 press conference, he said how important it was to him to emphasize “that the defendants in this case must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.” That is a core principle of the rule of law to which he is committed, even as his indictment narrates a stunning story of obstruction and betrayal of trust by a former President, all meant to inform Americans that no one is above the law.