For the first time in history a former US president is to face criminal charges in a federal court.
The decision to indict Donald Trump will deepen the political divisions in the United States with the former president and his supporters openly alleging that the justice system is being weaponised by the Biden administration to target its leading political opponent.
It will also may have a significant impact on the crowded contest for the Republican nomination to run for the presidency in 2024.
Trump is being prosecuted over his handling of classified documents found at his home in Florida after he had left the White House - as detailed on Friday when the indictment was unsealed.
The former president on Thursday night said he was innocent and argued that the charges against him were politically motivated.
He said to his supporters that the indictment - a charging document or a formal accusation initiating a criminal case - was really about interfering with the 2024 election by trying to damage his campaign.
Trump’s son, Don Jnr, said on Twitter that the United States now resembled a “banana republic”.
The Republican speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy contended that Joe Biden was behind the whole episode.
“Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America. It is unconscionable for a president to indict the leading candidate opposing him. Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades. I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with president Trump against this grave injustice. House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponisation of power accountable.”
In reality Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury following an investigation by a special counsel appointed by the US department of justice – a move designed to keep the whole process at arm’s length from politicians and those who were politically appointed.
A grand jury, which is made up of members of the public who are typically registered voters, hears evidence presented by a prosecutor and determines whether there is enough evidence to prosecute a person and whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.
Biden, speaking at a press conference with British prime minister Rishi Sunak in the White House on Thursday, strongly denied playing any role.
“I have never once – not one single time – suggested to the justice department what they should do or not do, relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge. I’m honest”, the president said.
A senior Biden administration official said on Thursday that the White House learned of the indictment from news reports.
However, in the divided nature of US politics millions of people who support Trump will not believe any of this - although some will have been tested by the nature of Friday’s revelations.
On conservative media the narrative of the justice system being weaponised for political reasons against Trump will effectively play on a loop.
Republican politicians will point to classified documents also being found in properties linked to Biden, which are also subject to an investigation by a separate special counsel.
Accusations of corruption against Biden and members of his family will also be raised.
Republicans in the House of Representatives in recent times have been seeking a document from the FBI which they maintain contains an allegation that Biden, when vice-president, was involved in a bribery scheme involving a foreign national.
Biden on Thursday said the claims were “a bunch of malarkey”.
Trump’s lawyers, in another point of attack against the indictment, have alleged misconduct on the part of prosecutors who carried out the investigation into the alleged mishandling of the classified documents.
However, while the legal case of the United States versus Donald J Trump will start in Miami on Tuesday, the impact of the indictment was already having an effect on the presidential campaign.
Within a short time of the former president confirming that he was facing charges, Trump’s campaign sought to raise funds from his supporters.
“We are watching our Republic DIE before our very eyes. The Biden-appointed special counsel has INDICTED me in yet another witch hunt regarding documents that I had the RIGHT to declassify as president of the United States.”
“Please make a contribution to peacefully stand with me today and prove that YOU will NEVER surrender our country to the radical Left.”
Trump’s campaign email argued that it had become stronger after a district attorney in New York in April brought charges against the former president over allegedly falsifying business records relating to hush money paid to an adult film actor before the 2016 election.
This case was brought locally in New York and does not involve the federal government.
Trump’s political opponents in the presidential campaign also recognise that the indictment in Miami on Thursday, and all the associated publicity, could generate sympathy and increased support for the former president.
Some of his opponents, who have been criticising him on the campaign trail, sought to tread carefully after the indictment was announced.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is Trump’s main rival for the Republican nomination according to polls, said on Twitter: “The weaponisation of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society. We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.”
He asked why authorities seemed “so zealous” in pursuing Trump but were more passive in their approach in relation to allegations about Hillary Clinton or Hunter Biden, son of the US president.
However, the former governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson said Trump should drop out of the contest for president.