Everyone needs a hobby. Some people take up gardening or metal detecting. Others lean into learning a new skill, like cooking or knitting. One of the most popular new hobbies these days is pickleball, especially among older Americans. The New York Times even hailed it recently as “the cure to male loneliness.” Hobbies are healthy and important, except when they’re not.
Donald Trump is passionate about golf, but his real hobby is obstruction of justice. Federal and state prosecutors say that he dabbles in other things as well, like falsifying financial records, illegally possessing classified documents, and maybe even conspiring with others to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election.
Special counsel Jack Smith recognized Trump’s passion on Thursday with a 60-page superseding indictment in the Mar-a-Lago case. In addition to the original wave of charges Trump faced for illegally retaining national defense records, he now also faces two additional counts. Both of them are for destroying evidence relevant to an investigation. Prosecutors tacked on an additional charge for possessing a highly classified war plan with Iran, which he reportedly showed to guests without security clearances at his Florida resort after leaving office.
The superseding indictment also introduces a new defendant to the Trump prosecution saga: Mar-a-Lago employee Carlos De Oliveira, who allegedly helped his co-defendants Trump and Walt Nauta delete security-camera footage that showed who entered and exited a room in the Trump-owned resort where boxes that contained classified information were stored. De Oliveira has yet to make an appearance before a federal judge, so it is unknown whether he will plead guilty to the charges.
Federal prosecutors describe an almost mobster-like plot to delete the security footage. When FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago and seized the classified documents in June 2022, they noticed security cameras outside a storage room and asked about the footage they captured. On June 24, prosecutors sent a grand jury subpoena to Trump’s lawyer that sought that footage, among other things. The lawyer then told Trump that investigators wanted to look at the footage.
The superseding indictment then describes in detail what happened next. Another Trump employee told Nauta, who’d worked as Trump’s valet, body man, and longtime aide over the years, that Trump wanted to see him in person in Bedminster, New Jersey. Shortly after that meeting, Nauta canceled a planned trip to Illinois and flew to Florida instead. He then reached out to De Oliveira and to the unnamed head of Mar-a-Lago’s I.T. department—the indictment refers to him as “Trump Employee 4”—to see if they were working that weekend.
When Nauta arrived in Palm Beach on June 25, he went straight to Mar-a-Lago and met with De Oliveira. The two men then toured the resort’s surveillance room and server space. In the morning of June 27, De Oliveira pulled aside Employee 4 to speak to him privately. He brought the employee to a small “audio closet” in the Mar-a-Lago basement, where De Oliveira told him that the conversation “should remain between the two of them,” according to prosecutors’ paraphrasing. What happened next sounded like something that a henchman from The Sopranos would say.
“De Oliveira told Trump Employee 4 that ‘the boss’ wanted the server deleted,” prosecutors said in the indictment. “Trump Employee 4 responded that he would not know how to do that, and that he did not believe that he would have the rights to do that. Trump Employee 4 told De Oliveira that De Oliveira would have to reach out to another employee who was a supervisor of security for Trump’s business organization. De Oliveira then insisted to Trump Employee 4 that ‘the boss’ wanted the server deleted and asked, ‘what are we going to do?’”
It’s hard to not sympathize with the unnamed I.T. director from this description of events. Imagine if federal agents had raided your workplace, and then a few days later one of the CEO’s top aides took you into a small, secluded room in the basement and told you that “the boss” wanted you to delete an entire server’s worth of security footage. I doubt the I.T. director had any formal legal training, or even any practical experience beyond the occasional Law & Order rerun. That was probably enough to understand that what he was being asked was not exactly legal.
The superseding indictment does not say who ultimately deleted the security footage. (It evidently doesn’t exist anymore, or prosecutors would not charge Trump with destroying it.) But investigators strongly suggest that De Oliveira and Nauta are responsible. The indictment describes almost minute by minute how, after the conversation with Employee 4, the two men went to the I.T. office and left it 19 minutes later that day. Trump spoke with De Oliveira by phone for three and a half minutes shortly thereafter.
Trump’s legal affairs have been filled with countless twists and turns over the last seven years. This is not one of them. It is maybe the most predictable thing that Trump has ever been accused of. The former president has a deep and implacable view that any effort to investigate, impeach, or otherwise hold him accountable is fundamentally illegitimate. He denigrates anyone who scrutinizes him as corrupt and dismisses any investigation into his affairs as a “witch hunt.” He does not believe in the rule of law. Trump appears to think of obstructing justice not as a crime but as a way to fight back against an illegitimate foe.
Obstruction, either formal or informal, is a staple of his presidential and postpresidential legal battles. Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation in 2019 identified 10 separate instances where Trump tried to obstruct justice in that inquiry, often failing only because his aides feared legal repercussions if they carried out his orders and declined to do so. Mueller and then–Attorney General Bill Barr ultimately declined to prosecute Trump for those instances for multiple reasons, foremost among them that they didn’t think they could prosecute a sitting president.
In one particularly blunt incident during the Russia investigation, Trump and his legal team all but promised to pardon former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was charged with various tax- and fraud-related offenses by Mueller’s team in 2018, if Manafort did not “flip” against him. Trump even tweeted that Manafort was a “brave man” for not “making up stories” about him, in alleged contrast to longtime fixer Michael Cohen, who accepted a plea deal in exchange for cooperating with federal prosecutors around the same time. Manafort ultimately received a pardon two days before Christmas in 2020 after Trump lost that year’s presidential election. He never cooperated with investigators.
Trump’s dogmatic refusal to give anything to prosecutors that could be used against him shapes how he lives his entire life. The former president is famous for never communicating with others by email or text message. This can’t be chalked up as simple technophobia; for years, he also ran a highly active Twitter account. In a civil investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial practices in 2021, the New York attorney general’s office described how Trump’s own aides admittedly go to great lengths to avoid creating a written record of their activities, a practice that came straight from the top. That philosophy also explains why Trump took so many White House records with him when he left in 2021; his haphazard storage of them in Mar-a-Lago and his resistance to returning any of them suggests he didn’t just have a presidential library in mind.
This mafia-like approach has served Trump well over the years. It is likely a major reason why he has escaped any criminal prosecution before now, especially when you see how many of his associates have been felled by their own correspondence and writings. But it has its limits. For all the comparisons he’s received to Richard Nixon over the years, Trump seems to have not learned the most important lesson from his predecessor: It’s not just the crime that’ll get you, it’s also the cover-up. Maybe he should’ve taken up pickleball instead. He’d make just as many friends.