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A former federal prosecutor weighs in on the government's case against Trump


Federal prosecutors say Donald Trump kept dozens of boxes of classified documents from his time in the White House, and he had a staff put them in storerooms, a ballroom, even a bathroom at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. He allegedly showed a visitor a military plan to invade a foreign country and a member of his fundraising pack a classified map of another country. And when a grand jury subpoenaed the documents, prosecutors say Trump tried to stand in their way. This is outlined in a 49-page indictment unsealed yesterday. Former President Trump called it the great witch hunt of all time. We're joined now by Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the Justice Department's public integrity section. Thanks very much for being with us.

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Does - as you read the indictment, does this seem like a strong case?

ZEIDENBERG: Yes. I would say that is quite the understatement. And I would point to support that, some of the takeaways that you just provided - the types of material that were involved, which is listed at the very beginning of the indictment, regarding defense weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries, nuclear programs, potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack plans for possible retaliation and response to a foreign attack. I mean, this is the kind of thing that people in the national security division - their hair is on fire when they think this stuff is getting out.

SIMON: Well, a couple of follow-up questions. Both President Biden and former Vice President Pence have recently found out classified documents in their homes. Neither has been charged with a crime. Why is the Trump case so different?

ZEIDENBERG: I mean, they really couldn't be - I suppose, on a very superficial level, they're similar. Both have to do with classified information. But the key difference here is that there was this concerted effort to hang onto this material, to keep it from returning it. And then he showed it to people, including someone from his political action committee and friends. And these were attack plans. And it was, you know, in the course of basically a conversation and bragging about or defending his record. You know, this was - there were - none of these people have - obviously, have a need to know. So on the one case with President Biden and with Mike Pence, apparently, they had records. They were unaware of it when they were found. They returned them. And, you know, it's just, you know, apples and oranges, night and day. It's just a huge difference here - that the indictment goes on at great length, the efforts taken when he realized that the government wanted it back, to lie about that and to claim that he didn't have it, and then to take efforts to hide the documents so they wouldn't be found when they were being looked for.

SIMON: Let me ask you this, Mr. Zeidenberg. I don't see a motive in the indictment, a why as to why President Trump - except maybe for bragging rights - but does that at all weaken the case if all - if Trump's attorneys just say, look, you know, it was for kicks?

ZEIDENBERG: Well, I think it probably was for kicks. I mean, he has said - I think he said it during his town hall - that these are all his records. And I think that was his motive. I mean, he's made those statements repeatedly. These things, in his mind, belong to him. Of course, that's not true. They all belong to the government. And when he ceased being president, they didn't belong to him any longer. I mean, he believes everything that he touched belonged to him and he could take. You know, if there were a motive in the sense that he was going to sell it and there was discussions about that, that would certainly make the case more egregious. But I think that the facts that are present here make it an exceptionally strong case.

SIMON: And how quickly do you think it can come to trial? The president is just - former president is just getting new lawyers. Does Donald Trump have a motive to bring the case to trial soon?

ZEIDENBERG: No. I think he has a motive to drag it out. And I think it's generally not that difficult to drag out cases, particularly involving national security secrets like this. His new lawyers will all have to get security clearances. That can take quite some time, and it will delay the process. And then there will be motions. And unless you have a judge who really wants to hold everyone's feet to the fire, these things can get dragged out for, easily, more than a year.

SIMON: Which would put us in the middle of the 2024 elections, wouldn't it?


SIMON: Peter Zeidenberg is a former federal prosecutor, and he's now with the law firm of ArentFox. Did I pronounce that correctly?

ZEIDENBERG: ArentFox Schiff. That was very good.

SIMON: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Mr. Zeidenberg.


SIMON: Take care.

ZEIDENBERG: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.