Catholic expert warns U.S. democracy faces ‘stress test’ as Trump faces federal criminal charges in Miami

Former U.S. President Trump is pictured in a courtroom sketch as he appeared at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Courthouse in Miami June 13, 2023, to enter a plea on classified document charges after a federal indictment. Seen with him are his personal aide Walt Nauta, left, and attorneys Chris Kise and Todd Blanche. (OSV News Photo by Jane Rosenberg, Reuters)

By Kate Scanlon

Former President Donald Trump surrendered to authorities at the federal courthouse in Miami June 13, making his first court appearance after being indicted on 37 federal charges related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents.

The indictment marks the first time in the nation’s history that a former president faces federal criminal charges after his presidency. Trump also faces criminal charges under New York state law related to his alleged hush money payments to an adult film actress.

Federal authorities have accused Trump of illegally retaining classified documents and storing them at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida after leaving the White House, and not cooperating with officials’ attempts to retrieve those documents.

John White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said the unprecedented indictments are “a drama that’s going to play out in multiple acts.”

White argued that Trump likely would not be facing charges if he had “returned the documents and said, ‘Well, you know, we were packing up in a hurry, you know, here are these things mixed in with everything else, and we’re notifying you that we’re returning all of this stuff.’ “

“But his ego said, ‘They’re mine,’ ” White said.

In a statement to reporters outside the courthouse, Trump attorney and spokesperson Alina Habba accused President Joe Biden’s administration of targeting “a leading political opponent.”

On his social media website Truth Social, Trump wrote, “ONE OF THE SADDEST DAYS IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE!!!”

But federal prosecutors allege illegal conduct on Trump’s part. Among the allegations in the indictment, prosecutors said Trump improperly stored classified materials in a bathroom, and also divulged the contents of a secret “plan of attack” against Iran to visitors at his New Jersey golf club in 2021. Moreover, Trump was recorded doing so, calling the material “highly confidential” and acknowledging it had not been declassified.

Trump and his allies have sought to cast the charges as a “witch hunt,” pointing to classified materials discovered at Washington think tank offices formerly used by Biden, and at his Delaware home. Those discoveries are still under investigation, but officials said Biden and his aides have cooperated in that process and returned them.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who recently launched his own bid for the Republican presidential nomination, was recently cleared in an investigation concerning the discovery of classified documents at his Indiana home. Before he was cleared, the former vice president issued a statement apologizing, taking “full responsibility” and pledging his cooperation. Pence also returned the documents to authorities.

Trump and his aides also are accused in court documents of stonewalling efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration and the Justice Department to retrieve hundreds of sensitive government documents.

Trump called on his supporters to protest in Miami, and rhetoric from some of his supporters about his indictments became a source of concern for federal authorities who monitor political extremism.

White said the tense political environment is a “stress test” on American democracy, and called on the U.S. bishops to make clear the church’s opposition to violence, including political violence.

“There’s been a questioning of norms and political norms — democratic and constitutional norms — that we once took for granted,” White said. “And it seems to me that each of us has an obligation, first of all, to be good American citizens.”

Americans have a right to peacefully protest, White said.

“We have a First Amendment that allows that, but it seems to me that we need to go back to a more civil and civic dialogue,” he said. “And part of that I think involves — and I think this is where Pope Francis generally has been very, very good — it involves listening.”

Catholics should engage in disagreement respectfully, White said.

Separate and ongoing criminal investigations by both the Justice Department and a Georgia state prosecutor also are scrutinizing Trump’s efforts in Georgia to overturn his loss to Biden in the 2020 election.

According to a June 13 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 62% of respondents — including 91% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans — said it was believable that Trump illegally stored classified documents as he is charged.

Trump, who is seeking to return to the White House for a second term, currently leads polls for the 2024 GOP presidential primary.

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