Trump federal indictment: How serious are obstruction charges?

Legal experts say obstruction is one of the most common federal charges.

ByIvan Pereira ABCNews logo
Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Trump arrives in Miami ahead of historic court appearance
Donald Trump has arrived in Florida ahead of a history-making federal court appearance Tuesday on dozens of felony charges accusing him of illegally hoarding classified documents and thwarting the Justice Department's efforts to get the records back.

Of all of the federal charges that former president Donald Trump and his aide Walter Nauta face in the investigation into the alleged mishandling of top secret government documents, obstruction is one of the most serious, according to legal experts.

Claire Finkelstein, the founder and faculty director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, noted that the obstruction charges in the indictment against Trump and his aide carry as much serious weight as the charges related to keeping the top secret documents, with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Finkelstein told ABC News this was not surprising, as the federal government has always treated allegations of interfering with any investigation seriously and often spearhead these kind of probes.

"You can see it as the most important charges, as protecting the rule of law goes," she said.

Finkelstein said an obstruction charge can cover a broad change of alleged activities from as simple as lying to investigators to as major as destroying evidence. But it all comes down to one clear allegation, she said: That the accused deliberately interfered with an ongoing criminal investigation.

"[U.S. Code] 1001 is lying to investigators. Very, very often you find 1001 charges filed in federal court," she said.

ABC's Aaron Katersky explains what will happen when Trump arrives in Miami:

Aaron Katersky is in Florida where Trump is set to face his criminal charges.

Vida Johnson, an associate professor of law, at Georgetown University, told ABC News that federal prosecutors will seek an indictment on obstruction when they have evidence the subject knows they are part of an investigation.

"This is sort of the classic type of crime where people say the cover-up is worse than the crime," she said. "The idea that you would cover up, that is the type of thing that prosecutors always look for."

Trump allegedly ordered Nauta, his attorneys and other staff members to move boxes of government documents, some of which included nuclear information and information regarding other nations, to his Mar-a-Lago estate after leaving office, according to the federal indictment. The boxes were allegedly kept in disarray in unsecured locations including a ballroom and bathroom, according to investigators.

After he was subpoenaed, Trump allegedly had his attorneys falsely sign an affidavit that all of the documents were returned, according to federal prosecutors.

Trump, who is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Miami, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and accused federal prosecutors of a political "witch hunt."

"We did absolutely nothing wrong. ... It's a disgrace what's happening," he said at a campaign event on Saturday.

A photo contained in the indictment from the U.S. Southern District of Florida, shows boxes of potentially sensitive documents that were found at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
DOJ via US Southern District of Florida

Finkelstein noted that obstruction can be charged against individuals who aren't the main focus of a federal investigation.

"Even if you were a bystander and saw something like documents being taken away, if you deliberately lie to investigators, you're liable," she said.

Nauta allegedly lied to investigators when he denied having knowledge about the location and movement of the documents before Trump provided them to authorities even though there were alleged communications between himself, Trump and other staffers about previously moving the boxes of documents, the indictment said.

Trump has defended Nauta and the aide accompanied the former president during campaign events over the weekend.

Finkelstein said that prosecutors tend to gather as much evidence as possible to make a strong case before a grand jury and trial jury. Finkelstein said Special Counselor Jack Smith and his team would be very thorough given this is a major investigation that concerns national security and a former head of state.