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Former prosecutor weighs in on Trump's indictment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Federal authorities unsealed their indictment against former President Trump today making him the first former president to ever face federal charges. Trump is named in 37 counts - among them, willful retention of national defense information, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. All this is connected to Trump's storage of classified documents at his home in Florida - Mar-a-Lago - documents that were found in an office space, a ballroom, a shower, and a bathroom. For what happens next, we go now to Leslie Caldwell, former assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department. Welcome.

LESLIE CALDWELL: Thank you.

CHANG: So very first impression - how strong is the evidence outlined in this indictment, you think?

CALDWELL: So the indictment is what's known as a speaking indictment, which means it lays out in detail a lot of the facts. And the facts as laid out in the indictment, or I should say the allegations as laid out in the indictment, are - to me, they were quite stunning - very detailed, very specific, very clear.

CHANG: OK. Well, one specific thing I want to mention is this indictment also cites comments - specific comments that Trump made on the campaign trail like this remark at a 2016 speech in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: In my administration, I'm going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law.

CHANG: No one will be above the law. How do you think prosecutors will use statements like that as they proceed in their prosecution of this case?

CALDWELL: So I think that those statements will be used to show that he understood the significance of classified documents, that he understood the importance of keeping them confidential and secret and that this was not an inadvertent misunderstanding or anything of the like - that this was a person who was well aware of the significance of these documents and chose to keep them and conceal them and cause others to make false statements about them as alleged in the indictment.

CHANG: On the conspiracy to obstruct justice charge, I'm curious - how does this case stack up to you, with respect to the many other obstruction cases that you've personally prosecuted? How would you measure this case compared to them?

CALDWELL: So I think this is - it was fascinating to read the indictment because I think one of the most striking things about the indictment, to me at least, was the extent to which it alleges President Trump's actual personal involvement in various things - including directing the movement of boxes, asking whether things really had to be returned or turned over, inducing lawyers to make essentially false statements to the government. I was surprised, actually, to see the extent to which he was personally involved on an ongoing and pretty regular basis in what was happening with these documents.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, you know, Leslie, this case, you know - it was put in the hands of a special counsel to avoid the appearance of any political interference from the Biden administration on this case. Having worked at DOJ for as many years as you had, how possible is it truly to separate the actions of the DOJ from the administration that the department serves when it comes to cases that a special counsel is handling?

CALDWELL: It's actually quite possible. In fact, that's really kind of the whole idea of a special counsel - is to separate them from both - from political influence and also from the Justice Department itself so that they will be operating independently and will exercise their own judgment, obviously subject to the approval or veto by the Department of Justice, by the attorney general. But that's kind of the whole point. And I think everyone involved is extremely careful to make sure that those lines don't get crossed.

CHANG: It's not just some imaginary firewall.

CALDWELL: No, absolutely not.

CHANG: So ultimate question, your personal view - how likely is a conviction here for the former president?

CALDWELL: That is very hard to say, particularly at this early juncture. I mean, all that I've seen so far is the actual indictment itself, which obviously is just an allegation. Mr. Trump is presumed innocent until he's proven in a court of law to be guilty. A lot can happen between now and then assuming we go down that path. And it's really, I think, way too soon to say. But certainly, the indictment is very clear, very concise, very specific, very, I think, easy to understand. And I think it's actually - it lays out a very damning story if the allegations prove to be supported by evidence - by sufficient evidence.

CHANG: Leslie Caldwell, former assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CALDWELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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