The Justice Department on Thursday took the legally and politically momentous step of lodging federal criminal charges against former President Donald J. Trump, accusing him of mishandling classified documents he kept upon leaving office and then obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim them.
Mr. Trump confirmed on his social media platform that he had been indicted. The charges against him include willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and a conspiracy to obstruct justice, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The Justice Department made no comment on the indictment Thursday and did not immediately make the document public.
The indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Federal District Court in Miami, is the first time a former president has faced federal charges. It puts the nation in an extraordinary position, given Mr. Trump’s status not only as a onetime commander in chief but also as the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to face President Biden, whose administration will now be seeking to convict his potential rival of multiple felonies.
Mr. Trump is expected to surrender to the authorities on Tuesday, according to a person close to him and his own post on his social media platform, Truth Social.
“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been indicted,” Mr. Trump wrote, in one of several posts around 7 p.m. after he was notified of the charges.
The former president added that he was scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Miami at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. In a video he released later on Truth Social, Mr. Trump declared: “I’m an innocent man. I’m an innocent person.”
A lawyer for Mr. Trump, Jim Trusty, told CNN on Thursday night that the former president’s legal team had not been shown the indictment itself but that the court summons gave some details on the charges. He mentioned alleged Espionage Act violations, false-statement charges and “several obstruction-based” charges, including offenses under Section 1512, which criminalizes witness tampering or other means of obstructing an official effort.
Mr. Trusty said he believed there was also a conspiracy charge. But he added: “This is not biblically accurate, because I’m not looking at a charging document. I’m looking at a summary sheet.” He also said the Trump legal team had not been told of anyone else being indicted.
The indictment, filed by the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, came about two months after local prosecutors in New York filed more than 30 felony charges against Mr. Trump in a case connected to a hush money payment made to a porn actress in advance of the 2016 election.
Mr. Trump remains under investigation by Mr. Smith’s office for his wide-ranging efforts to retain power after his election loss in 2020, and how those efforts led to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. He is also being scrutinized for potential election interference by the district attorney’s office in Fulton County, Ga.
A senior Biden administration official said the White House had learned of the indictment from news reports.
Public filings in the documents case have painted a picture of Mr. Trump as spending more than a year consistently stonewalling efforts by both the National Archives and Records Administration and the Justice Department to retrieve the trove of hundreds of sensitive government records that he took with him from the White House and mostly kept at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida.
While the nature of a few of the documents found in Mr. Trump’s possession is known — he had held onto letters from the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, for example — it remains unclear what other classified materials were found at Mar-a-Lago and moreover what, if any, damage to national security his possession of them caused.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly characterized the investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt, and in recent weeks his lawyers have sought to raise what they say are issues of prosecutorial misconduct. As early as Thursday morning, Mr. Trump sought to discredit the investigation, complaining about improprieties by a member of Mr. Smith’s team in a post on Truth Social.
The saga of Mr. Trump’s mishandling of government documents reaches back to 2021, when the National Archives discovered he had failed to return certain records after leaving office. Mr. Trump was initially reluctant to hand back any material, despite persistent warnings from some of his lawyers that he could face serious consequences if he ignored the archives’ requests.
After much negotiation, Mr. Trump sent the archives 15 boxes of materials in January last year. When officials at the archives examined the records, they discovered classified materials interspersed among them and alerted the Justice Department.
So began an extensive investigation of Mr. Trump’s handling and retention of the classified records.
In May 2022, prosecutors issued a subpoena for the return of all classified documents in the possession of his presidential office. When Mr. Trump received the subpoena, he asked the lawyer hired to help him comply with it, M. Evan Corcoran, if he had to obey its demands, according to a description of Mr. Corcoran’s notes of the conversation.
Eventually, Mr. Corcoran conducted a search of Mar-a-Lago for anything that might fall under the subpoena’s provisions and drafted a sworn statement that everything it demanded had been found. In early June 2022, prosecutors from Washington visited Mr. Corcoran at the Florida compound to enforce the subpoena and to collect a folder he had prepared for them with about 30 classified documents he had discovered during his search.
Within a matter of weeks, however, prosecutors developed evidence that the search Mr. Corcoran had conducted was incomplete and that more classified material likely remained at Mar-a-Lago. They convinced a federal magistrate judge in Florida to issue a search warrant and in August, F.B.I. agents descended on the property, hauling away about 100 additional classified documents.
Even after the extraordinary search, prosecutors remained unconvinced that they had recovered all of the classified material in Mr. Trump’s possession. They prevailed upon a federal judge in Washington, Beryl A. Howell, to compel new searches by Mr. Trump’s legal team not only of Mar-a-Lago, but also of other properties owned by Mr. Trump, including Trump Tower in New York; Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.; and a storage site in West Palm Beach, Fla.
During the search of the storage site, Mr. Trump’s lawyers found at least two more classified documents.
As the investigation continued, prosecutors scored a handful of breakthroughs.
In March, they persuaded Judge Howell that Mr. Trump had likely used Mr. Corcoran’s legal advice to further a crime — a finding that allowed the government to work around the usual protections of attorney-client privilege and gain access to Mr. Corcoran’s extensive audio notes of his dealings with the former president.
Around the same time, investigators discovered a recording of Mr. Trump in a meeting with his aides in July 2021, openly discussing a classified document in possession related to military options about confronting Iran. In the recording, according to several people familiar with it, Mr. Trump expressed regret that he had not declassified the document while he was in office and acknowledged that he could no longer do so.
That admission appeared to cut against one of the chief defenses he had repeatedly raised during the inquiry: that he had declassified all of the material that he took with him from the White House.
Charlie Savage contributed reporting.