MIAMI (AP) -- Donald Trump was set to make his first court appearance Tuesday in a historic criminal case charging the former president with hoarding top secret government documents, boastfully displaying them to visitors and trying to hide them from investigators who demanded them back.
Trump approached his Miami court date with characteristic bravado, insisting as he has done through years of legal woes that he has done nothing wrong and was being persecuted for political purposes. But the gravity of the moment is unmistakable as he answers to 37 felony counts that accuse him of willfully retaining classified records that prosecutors say could have jeopardized national security if exposed.
The case is laden with political implications for Trump, who currently holds the dominant spot in the early days of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. But it also poses profound legal consequences given the prospect of a years-long prison sentence. Even for a defendant whose post-presidential life has been dominated by investigations, the documents probe has stood out for both the apparent volume of evidence amassed by prosecutors and the severity of the allegations.
It's also a watershed moment for a Justice Department that until last week had never before brought charges against a former president. Attorney General Merrick Garland, an appointee of President Joe Biden, sought to insulate the department from political attacks by handing ownership of the case last year to a special counsel Jack Smith, who on Friday declared, "We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone."
The arraignment, though largely procedural in nature, is the latest in an unprecedented public reckoning this year for Trump, who faces charges in New York arising from hush money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign as well as ongoing investigations in Washington and Atlanta into efforts to undo the results of the 2020 race. He's sought to project confidence in the face of unmistakable legal peril, attacking Smith as "deranged," pledging to stay in the race and scheduling a speech and fundraiser for Tuesday night at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club.
"They're using this because they can't win the election fairly and squarely," Trump said Monday in an interview with Americano Media.
The court appearance is also unfolding against the backdrop of potential protests and unrest. Some high-profile backers have used barbed rhetoric to voice support. Trump himself has encouraged supporters to join a planned protest Tuesday at the Miami courthouse, where he is expected to surrender to authorities.
Some Trump supporters were also planning to load buses to head to Miami from other parts of Florida, raising concerns for law enforcement officials who are preparing for the potential of unrest around the courthouse. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said the city would be ready, and police chief Manuel A. Morales said downtown could see anywhere from a few thousand up to 50,000 protesters. He said the city would divert traffic and possibly block streets depending on crowd size.
As Trump's motorcade slowed to a crawl as it entered his Miami resort on Monday, a loud cheer went up from about 50 supporters who had gathered across the street. He flashed them a thumbs up as he passed and they waved their pro-Trump signs and banners.
A near-brawl broke out just minutes before Trump's arrival when a man stood in front of the crowd holding signs and wearing a suit covered with a two-word phrase calling the former president an obscenity. Supporters rushed him and several screamed at him before Doral police interceded and moved him down the street.
A federal grand jury in Washington had heard testimony for months in the documents case, but the Justice Department filed it in Florida, where Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort is located and where many of the alleged acts of obstruction occurred. Though Trump is set to appear Tuesday before a federal magistrate, the case has been assigned to a District Court judge he appointed, Aileen Cannon, who ruled in his favor last year in a dispute over whether an outside special master could be appointed to review the seized classified documents. A federal appeals panel ultimately overturned her ruling.
It's unclear what defenses Trump is likely to cite as the case moves forward. Two of his lead lawyers announced their resignation on the morning after his indictment, and the notes and recollections of another attorney, M. Evan Corcoran, are cited repeatedly throughout the 49-page charging document, suggesting that prosecutors may see him as a key witness.
Trump has said he's looking to add to his legal team though no announcements were made Monday. But that matters because, under the rules of the district, defendants are required to have a local lawyer for an arraignment to proceed.
The Justice Department unsealed Friday an indictment charging Trump with 37 felony counts, 31 relating to the willful retention of national defense information. Other charges include conspiracy to commit obstruction and false statements.
The indictment alleges Trump intentionally retained hundreds of classified documents that he took with him from the White House to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the presidency in January 2021. The material he stored, including in a bathroom, ballroom, bedroom and shower, included material on nuclear programs, defense and weapons capabilities of the U.S. and foreign governments and a Pentagon "attack plan," the indictment says. The information, if exposed, could have put at risk members of the military, confidential human sources and intelligence collection methods, prosecutors said.
Beyond that, prosecutors say, he sought to obstruct government efforts to recover the documents, including by directing personal aide Walt Nauta -- who was charged alongside Trump -- to move boxes to conceal them and also suggesting to his own lawyer that he hide or destroy documents sought by a Justice Department subpoena.