Former President Donald Trump received a hero’s welcome Tuesday night as he returned to his New Jersey golf club after pleading not guilty in Miami federal court to more than three dozen counts related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office in 2021.
After taking the stage at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Trump, 76, told a couple hundred supporters he had undergone “political persecution like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation.”
“They ought to drop this case immediately, because they’re destroying the country,” the 45th president said during his 30-minute address.
Fewer than six hours earlier, Trump had been arraigned on 37 counts, 31 of which accused him of unlawful retention of national security information.
“I just left Miami and I’ve never seen love in the streets like that, I’ve never seen it. And we’ve seen a lot of love,” Trump told his supporters.
Trump alleged — without evidence — that President Biden ordered his prosecution and attacked special counsel Jack Smith as “a deranged lunatic.”
“Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country. It’s a very sad thing to watch,” he said. “A corrupt sitting president had his top political opponents arrested on fake and fabricated charges of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty.”
Trump, who turns 77 on Wednesday, briefly paused his diatribe just before the halfway point of his speech as the spectators sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
“Nice birthday, isn’t it?” he groused. “They were saying ‘Happy Birthday’ I was with [son] Eric and [daughter-in-law] Lara and the kids — ‘Happy Birthday, Grandpa’ — and I said ‘Oh great, just got charged with’ — they went for 400 years approximately [in prison].”
The charges include one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, one count of withholding a document or record, one count of corruptly concealing a document or record, one count of concealing a document in a federal investigation, one count of scheming to conceal a document or record and one count of making false statements.
The former president and his body man Walt Nauta shuffled boxes containing the classified documents around Mar-a-Lago for months in an effort to elude federal authorities, moving the material from a ballroom to a bedroom, bathroom and storage room, the indictment says.
At Trump’s direction, prosecutors allege, Nauta also hid some of the material from the former president’s attorneys, causing them to wrongly tell the Justice Department and FBI in June 2022 that a “diligent search” in response to a grand jury subpoena had yielded only a few dozen documents.
The FBI returned that August and seized more than 100 classified documents kept in Trump’s private residence.
The former president, who is the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination, argued he faces a double standard compared to Biden, whose handling of classified records from his vice presidency and Senate years is also under investigation by special counsel Robert Hur.
“Hillary Clinton broke the law. And she didn’t get indicted,” Trump said. “Joe Biden broke the law and in many other ways we’re finding out and so far has not gotten indicted. I did everything right and they indicted me”
The material retained by Trump allegedly included an “attack plan” for a foreign country and intelligence information shared with US allies, some of which was shared with people who lack security clearances.
Trump argued that he refused to return the classified documents from Mar-a-Lago when asked to do so by the National Archives because he hadn’t found the time to go through the papers.
“Many people have asked me why I had these boxes, why did you want them? The answer, in addition to having every right under the Presidential Records Act, is that these boxes were containing all types of personal belongings — many, many things — shirts and shoes and everything … clothing, memorabilia and much much more,” Trump said.
“I hadn’t had a chance to go through all the boxes. It’s a long tedious job — takes a long time, which I was prepared to do, but I have a very busy life.”
Trump said that Biden’s handling of classified records, some of which were stashed in his Wilmington, Del., garage, was worse.
“Classified documents were strewn all over his garage floor where his now-famous Corvette is stored. He’s so proud of that car. There was no security and the door was left open most of the time,” he said.
The ex-president argued that the Biden administration indicted him in a historical first to “distract” from corruption allegations linked to the first family’s foreign business dealings, including the recently surfaced allegation that then Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter received $5 million apiece in bribes to do the bidding of corrupt Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings.
“[It’s] no coincidence that these charges against me came down the very same day evidence revealed Joe Biden took a $5 million bribe from Ukraine. Took a $5 million bribe. But the FBI and the Justice Department don’t even want to talk about it,” Trump said.
The former president sought to recast his federal criminal case, from which some fellow Republicans recoiled upon learning details of the indictment, as a potential boon to his candidacy, saying that it was part of a long-running witch hunt dating to a discredited 2016 election claim that he hired prostitutes to urinate on a Moscow hotel bed.
“How about the fake dossier? Remember that one? Think that was easy to go home and say. ‘Hello, darling, how are you?’ when they read about that? It wasn’t easy at all,” Trump said, noting also that he was impeached in 2019 for pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens but has been proven “right.”
“Just yesterday, Senator [Chuck] Grassley revealed that the Burisma executive who allegedly paid the bribe reportedly has crooked Joe on tape. They have 17 tapes. I understand that he must be a nice guy to deal with,” Trump said.
“Joe Biden and the radical left can take foreign bribes and be totally protected. Republicans, all of you must finally get tough,” Trump said.
“They’re coming after you and I just happened to be standing in their way and I will never be moving,” he concluded. “On November 5, 2024, justice will be done. We will take back our country and we will make America great again.”
The White House declined to comment on the case Tuesday during a press briefing and Biden answered “no” when asked if he would share his reaction to the arraignment.
Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters clashed outside the Miami courthouse during the day, and one man with a “Lock him up” sign was arrested for trying to halt the former president’s motorcade as it departed.
There was no such division in the crowd at Bedminster, which chanted “U-S-A!” as Trump took the stage — and jeered “Lock Him Up!” and “F— Joe Biden!” as the former president spoke.
Additional reporting by Steven Vago