Former United States President Donald Trump has rejected the federal charges he faces over his handling of classified documents, hours after pleading not guilty at an arraignment in Miami, Florida.
Trump has been charged with 37 counts of hiding and mishandling classified documents.
“Today, we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country,” Trump said at a speech on Tuesday evening from his golf club at Bedminster, New Jersey, rejecting the case and calling for it to be dropped.
The former president and current Republican frontrunner in the 2024 US presidential race fell back on his regular playbook of grievances, framing the federal case as politically motivated persecution and accusing US President Joe Biden of attempting to derail his candidacy.
“A corrupt sitting president had his top political opponent arrested on fake and fabricated charges of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty, right in the middle of a presidential election,” Trump said.
On Friday, the US Justice Department unsealed an indictment that outlined 37 criminal charges against Trump, including 31 under the Espionage Act.
But Trump came out swinging in his rambling speech on Tuesday, calling Justice Department prosecutors “thugs” and dubbing the special counsel behind the investigation “deranged”.
He also did not deny that he kept classified documents, despite requests and eventually a subpoena to turn them over to the National Archives.
The indictment alleges Trump and his aide Waltine ‘Walt’ Nauta actively concealed the classified records, some of which contained sensitive national security information, and obstructed attempts to recover them.
“The decision to segregate personal materials from presidential records is made by the president during the president’s term and in the president’s sole discretion,” Trump said in his speech, potentially setting forth a legal defence he plans to present in court.
Trump has repeatedly said that he was entitled to the classified documents under the Presidential Records Act and declassified them before leaving office, something the Justice Department disputes. The indictment quoted him as saying he knew he had not declassified a document before his presidency ended.
Trump’s speech was briefly interrupted when his crowd of supporters burst into the song “Happy Birthday”: The Republican candidate turns 78 on Wednesday.
Much of Trump’s speech was dedicated to highlighting alleged misdeeds he attributed to the Democratic Party, running down a list of political foes that ranged from his 2016 presidential rival Hilary Clinton to the scandal-ridden former House Representative Anthony Weiner.
“Hilary Clinton broke the law and she didn’t get indicted. Joe Biden broke the law – and in many other ways, as we’re finding out – and so far has not gotten indicted. I did everything right and they indicted me,” Trump said.
If elected in 2024, Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Biden, whose lawyers recovered a “small number” of classified documents at the Democrat’s Delaware home and Washington, DC, office.
A special counsel, Robert Hur, has already been appointed to probe Biden’s handling of classified documents after he left office as vice president. Special counsel Jack Smith was named in November to oversee Trump’s case.
Experts have highlighted the differences between Trump’s and Biden’s cases: Biden’s lawyers appear to have turned over the documents proactively and authorised a search of the Delaware residence, while Trump is accused of concealing boxes of documents with the help of his aide.
Democratic strategist Richard Goodstein told Al Jazeera that Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence was found with classified documents at his Indiana home after leaving office. But, Goodstein said, Pence’s and Biden’s actions set them apart from Trump.
“The moment, in both cases, they realised they had them, they called the authorities who came to get them instantly,” Goodstein told Al Jazeera.
In choosing to speak publicly so soon after his indictment, Trump appears to have made clear his strategy – appeal to those who support him.
John Feehery of EFB Advocacy told Al Jazeera that Trump’s speech would likely be a powerful appeal to his Republican base.
“In the court of public opinion, Trump is making a pretty effective case, especially for Republican voters. He’s a master of weaving a narrative of him being a martyr,” Feehery said.