WASHINGTON (CN) — Not for the first time, former President Donald Trump etched his name into the annals of history this week in a way neither he or his surrogates can boast about.
The former chief executive and runaway favorite among Republicans to challenge President Joe Biden for the White House in 2024 was indicted Friday on dozens of counts under the federal Espionage Act, as well as charges of obstruction of justice and making false statements.
Though it marks the first time in history a former U.S. president faces federal criminal charges, it’s not Trump’s first indictment. He is already the subject of separate charges in New York, for which he was arraigned in April, over his reimbursement of a lawyer for making hush-money payments to women accusing him of extramarital affairs.
Trump's prosecution in Miami is the result of a monthslong investigation into classified documents Trump took from the White House in 2021 and stored at his resort home Mar-a-Lago, an inquiry punctuated in August by an FBI raid on the compound in which agents seized some of the classified material.
The Mar-a-Lago probe is spearheaded by special counsel Jack Smith — a storied prosecutor appointed in November by Attorney General Merrick Garland as an independent overseer. Smith, who has worked both at the Justice Department and abroad at the International Criminal Court where he prosecuted war criminals, is also in charge of a separate federal inquiry of Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Special counsel are used in cases when there could be a conflict of interest between the government and the accused. In this case, using an independent investigator is aimed at putting some distance between the Biden administration and the classified documents probe centered around a former president.
Despite that, pundits, lawmakers and other allies of Trump have long claimed that the probe represents an attempt from the White House to muzzle the President Joe Biden's chief political opponent.
“House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted Thursday.'
The suggestion that the White House has transformed the special counsel into a political cudgel has become a clarion call among some Republican figures in Congress and elsewhere. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, a vehement Trump ally who leads a House panel aptly named the Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, on Friday accused the Justice Department of holding “Republicans, parents, and traditional Catholics” to a different standard than it holds Democrats.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another Republican presidential hopeful, piled on the claims of weaponization. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending on political affiliation,” he tweeted. “The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”
Even Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who is no stranger to criticizing the Biden administration and recently helped facilitate Governor DeSantis’ rocky presidential campaign announcement, weighed in on the Trump indictment.
“There does seem to be far higher interest in pursuing Trump compared to other people in politics,” the billionaire tweeted. “Very important that the justice system rebut what appears to be differential enforcement or they will lose public trust.”
Among legal scholars, though, the conspiracy allegations have fallen flat.
“I think the history of the office is not one of weaponization, despite the short memories that Trump and his people may have,” said Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond’s School of Law. “I think the way it’s set up is actually to depoliticize the appointment, and certainly Merrick Garland has done that.”