Special Counsel Avoids Possible Legal Fight by Moving Trump Case to Miami
The decision to indict former President Donald J. Trump in Florida in the classified documents inquiry eliminates a considerable risk to the politically fraught case: a potentially thorny legal fight over where the charges should have been filed, former federal prosecutors said.
For months, prosecutors had been using a grand jury in Washington to question witnesses and hear evidence before abruptly deciding to bring charges in Florida that included at least one violation of the Espionage Act, obstruction and false statements.
Dennis M. Fitzpatrick, a former prosecutor who handled national security cases in Virginia, said the publicly known charges appear to relate to crimes that happened in Florida rather than Washington, where the F.B.I. and Justice Department handled the investigation.
The trove of classified documents were stored at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club in Florida, where agents and prosecutors obtained a search warrant last year from a federal judge to retrieve them.
Prosecutors also tried to determine if Mr. Trump had directed someone to move the documents or sought to conceal some of them at the resort after the Justice Department issued a subpoena for their return.
It is not clear where Mar-a-Lago employees or Trump aides were suspected of making false statements to the F.B.I., but if it was in Florida, that would be the appropriate place to charge them, former prosecutors said.
“When a prosecutor thinks he has a strong case, the objective becomes protecting the legal case by taking legal issues off the table,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “Venue in D.C. would have been a legal fight.”
The decision to indict Mr. Trump in Florida also means prosecutors might lose the advantage of putting a case in front of a potentially more liberal Washington jury. (Mr. Trump received 4 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia in the presidential election of 2016, and 5 percent in 2020.) Prosecutors in Miami could face a more skeptical jury because of Mr. Trump’s popularity in that state.
Juries in Washington have swiftly convicted rioters egged on by Mr. Trump in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Although there were doubts about whether prosecutors would win complex cases charging members of the far-right groups the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy, a law rarely tested, Washington juries have not acquitted a single Jan. 6 defendant.
Still, Brandon L. Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor who also worked on complex cases involving national security and classified material, wrote in a legal publication last year that there were many reasons to bring the case to Washington.
He said the judges are more familiar with cases involving classified information and the Espionage Act, and the jury pool in Washington “appears to be less deferential toward” Mr. Trump.
But in an interview, Mr. Van Grack said Jack Smith, the special counsel, must have thought there was real risk in bringing a case in Washington and that the case had to be brought in Florida for sound legal reasons.
“There is a constitutional right to be charged in the location where the crime occurred and Jack Smith took a cold, hard look at the facts and determined that venue was appropriate in Florida,” Mr. Van Grack said.
Adam Goldman reports on the F.B.I. and national security from Washington, D.C., and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He is the coauthor of “Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America.” @adamgoldmanNYT
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