Former US president makes first court appearance as he faces federal charges of mishandling classified government files.
Miami, Florida – Donald Trump’s supporters erupted in cheers when the former United States president waved at them through the tinted window of his car after leaving a federal court in Miami, Florida.
Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 charges of mishandling classified information on Tuesday – an indictment that made him the first former US president to be federally prosecuted.
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Enthused supporters gathered around the court to protest the charges, echoing Trump’s claim that the case is a political hit-job designed to derail his 2024 campaign for a second term as president. Many also chased Trump’s motorcade as he left, hoping to get another glimpse of the Republican politician.
“I think the liberals will try to bring down anybody who gets in their way,” said protester Patty Berry. She held a sign that read “Department of Injustice”, referring to the Department of Justice, which is prosecuting Trump in the Miami case.
Last week, prosecutors made public the indictment against Trump, alleging that he wilfully took and retained secret government files, including national defence-related documents, in violation of the Espionage Act.
The indictment also accused Trump of keeping the classified files in an unsecured location, including a bathroom at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. In addition, prosecutors said that he showed the documents to unauthorised people at private meetings.
But on Tuesday, the former president’s lawyer Alina Habba called the charges a “blatant and unapologetic weaponisation of the criminal justice system”.
Trump rebuked the indictment as a “witch hunt” and “election interference” in posts on his Truth Social platform throughout the day. He also thanked protesters who gathered outside the court to show their support.
Day passes peacefully
The number of demonstrators outside the court grew as Tuesday’s hearing approached. Still, the dozens of reporters and photographers in attendance from around the world often outnumbered the protesters.
A law enforcement presence was felt at every street corner in the vicinity, with armed agents and vehicles securing the building.
Multiple law enforcement agencies were at the scene, including the Miami Police Department, the county’s Miami-Dade police force, Secret Service agents responsible for Trump’s safety and federal marshals in charge of the court’s security.
But despite the presence of Trump supporters – and a handful of counter-protesters– the day passed largely without incident.
There had been fear of unrest or violence by far-right groups – a concern that has persisted since Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
Trump had rejected those election results by claiming widespread voter fraud, a false allegation that he continues to make.
Early on Tuesday, far-right operative Laura Loomer stressed that the pro-Trump rally outside the court would not turn into another violent event like the January 6 attack.
“We are peaceful, we are civil, we are lawful,” Loomer told a crowd of protesters, adding that the demonstrators are exercising their “God-given” right of free speech.
Nevertheless, the area around the court saw an exchange of shouting and insults between Trump supporters and the few counter-protesters who showed up, but the confrontations did not turn violent.
Several Trump supporters had swarmed a demonstrator who wore a jail jumpsuit and carried a sign that said, “Lock him up.”
Domenic Santana, the anti-Trump demonstrator, later said he feared for his life during the exchange.
“They were spitting at me, calling me [an anti-gay slur], calling me a communist,” he told Al Jazeera.
Santana was subsequently detained after he tried to run towards Trump’s convoy as the former president was leaving the area.
Another counter-protester, who identified herself by the first name Chrissy, carried a sign that read “Trump 20-24 years in jail” – a play on the former president’s 2024 presidential campaign.
“If you want to support Donald Trump’s persona and policies, it’s irrelevant right now in this court case,” Chrissy told Al Jazeera. “What we’re supporting is judicial consequences to alleged actions.”
A Trump supporter later followed Chrissy and the man accompanying her, shouting at them with a bullhorn.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was also met with angry protesters as he visited the area on Tuesday.
Demonstrators called the mayor a RINO, a derisive acronym meaning “Republican in Name Only” – a term regularly applied to members of the party who do not support Trump.
The mayor was surrounded by law enforcement agents and TV cameras as he walked through the crowd of people gathered outside the court.
“RINO, shame on you,” protesters chanted at him.
Trump’s supporters waved enormous flags and engaged in unusual political displays. One demonstrator even carried a real pig’s head on a spike. Such political gimmicks are not unusual at Trump rallies but they were especially prevalent outside the court.
Trump aide Walt Nauta, who is charged in the same indictment as the former president, also appeared in court on Tuesday, but he will not be formally arraigned until later this month.
What’s next in the case?
Tuesday’s arraignment kicks off what could be a lengthy legal process, despite Special Counsel Jack Smith’s promise to pursue a “speedy trial”.
Smith is leading the prosecution and investigations into all federal matters related to Trump. Attorney General Merrick Garland – a Biden appointee – has distanced himself from the probes to avoid perceived conflicts of interest.
The case now enters a phase of discovery and pre-trial hearings, where prosecutors and defence lawyers argue about the rules of the trial and what evidence could be presented to the jury.
“If this case goes the way criminal cases do go, the court will set dates for discovery. One can expect the defence will try and slow things down and deliberate as long as they possibly can,” said Michael Meltsner, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “And then at some point, a trial date will be set.”
Meltsner told Al Jazeera last week it would be difficult to predict when the trial would start because of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“Of course, he’s presumed innocent, but it’s a startling document,” Meltsner said of the indictment.
The professor also cautioned against speculating this early about the sentence Trump may receive if convicted.
“Yet, the charges – as set out in the indictment– are very, very serious,” he said.
If Trump wins the elections, he will likely pardon himself, a possibility that has sparked legal debate. But for now, his legal troubles do not prevent him from running for a second term as president, even if he is convicted.
In fact, the former president saw a boost against his Republican rivals after he was charged in New York earlier this year for allegedly falsifying business records. Those state-level charges came in relation to a hush money payment made to a porn star ahead of the 2016 elections.
Ron – a Trump supporter from Naples, Florida, who offered his first name only – told Al Jazeera that Trump is the only serious Republican contender for 2024, dismissing the candidacy of the governor in his home state, Ron DeSantis.
“These people are just taking up air right now,” he said of Trump’s Republican rivals on Tuesday. “There are no other candidates.”