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Dispute over documents turns into a historic indictment of a former president

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A dispute over documents has turned into a historic indictment of a former president. Donald Trump is now facing federal charges related to the trove of classified documents taken from the White House to his Florida estate. His attorney, Jim Trusty, told CNN the case against Trump includes obstruction and false statement charges.

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JIM TRUSTY: He is innocent. I mean, everything about this case is absolutely rotten.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now is NYU law professor and former Defense Department special counsel, Ryan Goodman.

Ryan, this indictment is not public yet. Given what we know about the case so far, how strong do you think it might be?

RYAN GOODMAN: Based on the publicly available information, I think this case is going to be very strong. And we already have, unusually, a number of court filings by the Justice Department where they at least mapped out some of the allegations. And then on top of that is some very good investigative reporting. So the biggest charge here is for the Espionage Act, and the key language is the willful retention of national defense information and a failure to deliver it to the officials who are authorized to receive it. So, you know, I think many listeners know, from those words alone, the evidence that has been presented so far is - fits right within those four corners. And I think that's why it's probably going to be a very strong case.

MARTÍNEZ: And willful retention, what does that mean in simpler language?

GOODMAN: So willful is the key in the sense that it means that the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that former President Trump was aware that he had the documents, and then he deliberately kept them. Retention is just holding on to them.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you think prosecutors sought an indictment in Florida instead of Washington?

GOODMAN: It's a great question. It's - basically boils down to, I'd say, two factors. One is it's definitely true that the jury pool is not as favorable to the prosecutors in Florida. But that's not necessarily a legitimate factor for them, just like Donald Trump can't say that he would like to move the jurisdiction of the case in Manhattan to another place in New York because there are more Republican voters there. It's just not a factor that the law is going to recognize as legitimate for the prosecutors either, so that - they can't really take that into account.

And then the second is the law basically requires the prosecutors to bring the case in the jurisdiction where the criminal conduct occurred. A bunch of this criminal conduct that's alleged occurred in Florida. If they try to bring it in D.C., they might succeed. But if they got it wrong, there's a good chance that the entire case gets thrown out just on that basis.

MARTÍNEZ: So even if the documents went from D.C. to Florida, it's better to file those charges in Florida.

GOODMAN: Yes. And there's also this quirk within the legal system that in D.C., there's odd case law - it's not representative of the rest of the country - that says if it's actually for an obstruction charge, they say do not bring the charge in the place where the obstruction was targeted, like the National Archives or the grand jury that was meeting there. You have to bring it where the conduct of the obstruction occurred. The bulk of that is obviously in Mar-a-Lago. So I think that there's...

MARTÍNEZ: So Palm Beach County, possibly, instead of Miami?

GOODMAN: That's right. So that's - that would be, you know, an open question as to which part of Florida. But that's right. It would, at least, at a minimum, need to be in that state.

MARTÍNEZ: Trump is expected to appear in court Tuesday in Miami. How is that process going to go? How similar might it be to what we saw in New York?

GOODMAN: I think it's going to be very similar to the process in New York in the sense that they want to be showing that Trump is treated like other defendants but, at the same time, with, you know, hyper - heightened security. So he's unlike other defendants in that sense, and other defendants don't come with the Secret Service. So I think that's the only unusual part that we'll probably see. And then he'll have his opportunity to plead.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, many others have faced similar charges, but the circumstances in this case - very unique. Does that help or hurt the defense?

GOODMAN: So I've actually looked at every single case that the Department of Justice has ever brought in the last, like, 20-plus years for the Espionage Act under this particular provision, and I have to say, the alleged conduct for Trump is in the top quartile of the most egregious cases. So I think it's going to - that's why it's a very strong case for the prosecutors to bring. I think that in a normal situation, the person would plead and try to get a very minimum sentence, which - that can also happen with the way in which our system works.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NYU law professor Ryan Goodman, thanks a lot.

GOODMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.