By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Two lawyers defending Donald Trump quit the case on Friday, one day after the former U.S. president was indicted on federal charges of illegally retaining classified documents, obstruction and other crimes.
The Wall Street Journal at the same time reported that Trump’s former military valet, Walt Nauta, had been charged alongside Trump. Nauta went to work at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort after working in the Trump White House.
Nauta’s lawyer, Stanley Woodward, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
The surprise announcement by Trump’s lawyers John Rowley and Jim Trusty could prompt further legal complications ahead of Trump’s scheduled appearance in federal court in Miami on Tuesday in the documents case.
“This morning we tendered our resignations as counsel to President Trump,” the two lawyers said in a statement. “It has been an honor to have spent the last year defending him, and we know he will be vindicated.”
Trump said on social media that he was being represented by white collar defense lawyer Todd Blanche.
The indictment of a former U.S. president on federal charges is unprecedented in American history and emerges at a time when Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Trump faces seven criminal counts related to his treatment of sensitive government materials he took with him when he left the White House in January 2021, according to a source familiar with the matter.
He is due to appear in the Florida court on Tuesday, a day before his 77th birthday.
The cases do not prevent Trump from campaigning or taking office if he were to win the November 2024 presidential election. Legal experts say there would be no basis to block his swearing-in even if he were convicted and sent to prison.
Investigators seized roughly 13,000 documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, nearly a year ago. One hundred were marked as classified, even though one of Trump’s lawyers had previously said all records with classified markings had been returned to the government.
“I AM AN INNOCENT MAN!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform on Thursday after announcing he had been indicted.
Trump has previously said he declassified those documents while president, but his attorneys have declined to make that argument in court filings.
CNN reported on Friday that Trump said after leaving office that he had retained military information that he had not declassified. Those comments, captured on audio, could be a key piece of evidence in the case.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon has been initially assigned to oversee the case, according to a separate source who was briefed on the matter. She could preside over the trial as well, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Cannon, appointed by Trump in 2019, made decisions that favored him in legal skirmishes during the documents investigation last year. Her rulings were overturned on appeal.
Cannon would determine, among other things, when a trial would take place and what Trump’s sentence would be if he were found guilty.
Trump lawyer Jim Trusty told CNN the charges include conspiracy, false statements, obstruction of justice, and illegally retaining classified documents under the Espionage Act.
It is the second criminal case for Trump, who is due to go on trial in New York next March in a state case stemming from a hush-money payment to a porn star.
If he wins the presidency again, Trump, as head of the federal government, would be in a position to derail the federal case, but not the state one in New York.
POPULAR WITH REPUBLICANS
Trump’s legal woes have not dented his popularity with Republican voters, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. His main Republican rivals have so far lined up behind him to criticize the case as politically motivated.
Trump served as president from 2017 to 2021, and he has so far managed to weather controversies that might torpedo other politicians. He describes himself as the victim of a witch hunt and accuses the Justice Department of partisan bias.
Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is heading the investigation, is leading a second criminal probe into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
Smith has been given a degree of independence from Justice Department leadership to pursue the politically sensitive cases.
President Joe Biden found out about the indictment like everyone else and did not have advance knowledge of it, the White House said on Friday.
Trump also faces a separate criminal probe in Georgia related to efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in that state.
Smith convened grand juries in both Washington and Miami to hear evidence, but has opted to bring the case in the politically competitive state of Florida, rather than the U.S. capital, where any jury would likely be heavily Democratic.
Under federal law, defendants have a right to be charged where the activity in question took place. A Florida prosecution, legal experts say, could head off a drawn-out legal challenge from Trump’s team over the proper venue.
The Republican state-by-state presidential nominating contest kicks off early next year, and the party is due to choose its nominee for the November 2024 election in July of that year.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Jack Queen; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)
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