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Breaking down the stakes of special counsel Jack Smith's historic indictment of Trump


If you are trying to keep track of all the names of people caught up in Donald Trump's legal troubles, here's two you can deprioritize - Jim Trusty and John Rowley, Trump's attorneys. Make that former attorneys. They resigned this morning from representing him, part of the fallout from this federal indictment. Meanwhile, one name to keep an eye on - Jack Smith, the special counsel who pursued these criminal charges against the former president to do with classified documents. Let's bring in Georgetown University law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler - good to see you.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Mary Louise - great to be here.

KELLY: So you've read this indictment. It was just made public this afternoon. It includes, among other allegations, that Trump and his aides misled the FBI about keeping hundreds of sensitive documents at a crowded public resort, that they allegedly stored them, among other locations, in a shower. The charges are eye-popping. How serious are they?

BUTLER: Very serious. This is what prosecutors call a speaking indictment, meaning it tells a story that anyone can understand. In the simplest version, the indictment accuses the president of taking sensitive documents pertaining to national security that he knew didn't belong to him, including documents related to the country's nuclear programs and documents about how the U.S. might respond if it were attacked. And when he was asked to return these documents, not only did he refuse. According to the indictment, he conspired with his valet to keep them from the government and to cover up what he'd done. There have been lots of accusations against Donald Trump over the years. There's never been anything this detailed and this consequential in terms of Trump's criminal exposure. Even if Trump is convicted in the Manhattan case, he is unlikely to go to prison on those counts. For the crimes listed in this federal indictment, Mary Louise, even first-time offenders usually get jail time.

KELLY: What kind of signal does it send that his attorneys quit this morning?

BUTLER: That's very hard to read. When there's a first appearance in court, as there will be on Tuesday, the defense attorneys have to file what's called a notice of appearance. After that, they have to get permission from the judge to withdraw...

KELLY: Yeah.

BUTLER: ...From the case, so this may just be a sign that Trump is revamping his legal team. Sometimes when people are investigated and they actually get indicted, they get mad at their defense attorneys.

KELLY: And I gather they said this had to do with - the timing was right because the case is shifting to Miami. So we'll watch that space. I want to ask about Jack Smith, the prosecutor, because I know you worked with him. You worked in the same DOJ section that he once led. What should we know about him?

BUTLER: So, yeah, at different times, we were both prosecutors in the unit of the Justice Department that prosecutes public corruption. He was the chief. He's worked as a state, federal and international prosecutor almost his whole career. Today he did kind of what the accompaniment man would do. He let the indictment speak for himself. He's known as being an aggressive prosecutor, kind of a true believer in holding people accountable and especially in bringing corrupt public officials to justice.

KELLY: And just a very quick fact check here - you talked about that these charges do carry sentences of years. Theoretically, could Trump run for president from prison, yes or no?

BUTLER: Well, nothing in the Constitution prohibits Trump from running for president, either under these accusations or even if he's convicted.

KELLY: All right. Paul Butler, Georgetown University law professor and a former federal prosecutor. Thanks for coming in.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.