A newly-unsealed federal indictment accuses former U.S. president Donald Trump of conspiring with six close allies to try and overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden and unlawfully block the transfer of power, which culminated in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack by Trump’s supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump was charged with four criminal counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, attempting to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate” those exercising the right to vote “and to have one’s vote counted,” according to the document. The last statute is part of the Civil Rights Act.
The indictment handed down by a special grand jury in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday marks the third time this year Trump has been hit with criminal charges, adding more legal pressure as he seeks to return to the White House in 2024.
But much like the 38 criminal counts he faces in the classified documents case — which alleges Trump withheld national security materials and misled federal investigators seeking their return — the election case headed by special counsel Jack Smith casts a dark cloud over the implications of Trump potentially reclaiming not just the Republican nomination, but the presidency as well.
The indictment alleges that Trump knew his claims of widespread election fraud were false but spread them anyway in order to legitimize the lies, “create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and erode public faith in the administration of the election.”
The document describes six unnamed co-conspirators who were close allies of Trump and were allegedly enlisted to help in his efforts to overturn the election and remain in power, despite also knowing the claims of fraud were false.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Smith did not say if those co-conspirators would face indictments of their own, only saying that his office’s investigation is ongoing.
Trump, who currently leads the Republican presidential primary by a wide margin, was informed earlier this month by Smith’s office that he was a target of the Justice Department’s investigation. He reacted to the latest indictment with typical anger on social media, but his campaign went even further Tuesday by comparing the mounting criminal cases against him to “Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.”
“President Trump has always followed the law and the Constitution, with advice from many highly accomplished attorneys.”
Indeed, four of the alleged co-conspirators are described in the indictment as attorneys who either helped devise schemes to help overturn the election and obstruct the certification of the results in Congress or helped spread the false fraud claims.
The probe focused on the turbulent two-month period after the November 2020 election in which Trump refused to accept his loss to Biden and spread lies that victory was stolen from him. The turmoil resulted in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, when Trump loyalists violently broke into the building, attacked police officers and disrupted the congressional counting of electoral votes.
More than 1,000 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot. But in the months and years since Jan. 6, 2021, investigators have scrutinized how Trump and his allies planted the seeds of the attack by falsely claiming the election had been “stolen” from him through fraud committed by voters and election officials.
The indictment lists multiple examples of Trump hearing directly about the lack of evidence that would back up his allegations, including from his vice-president Mike Pence, administration officials, White House attorneys, campaign staff and state and local officials.
The campaign also accused state courts of unlawfully making legal changes to ensure voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was still raging at the time and made in-person voting unsafe for many Americans.
Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in the aftermath of the election were dismissed by judges in close swing states across the country, who ruled the campaign failed to prove any fraud occurred that would sway the results.
The indictment notes Trump had the right to lawfully contest the results and investigate allegations of fraud. But it also underlines how Trump carried on with efforts to undermine and overturn the results anyway, even after learning those allegations were false. Prosecutors list examples of officials debunking some of the most famous and outlandish claims — from dead people and non-residents voting to machines switching votes — directly to Trump, only for the president to ignore them.
The indictment also outlines how Trump and his co-conspirators allegedly put pressure on state election officials and lawmakers to not certify the election results, as well as schemes to enlist slates of Republican fake electors in battleground states won by Biden meant to muddle the Electoral College results.
Trump also pushed his Justice Department to seize voting machines and open investigations into already-debunked claims of voter fraud, the indictment claims, while also pressuring Pence to reject the Electoral College results — something Pence refused to do. The indictment says those efforts were supported by co-conspirators who either provided false legal justifications or actively worked to undermine Justice Department leadership.
Pence’s refusal helped spark the attack on the Capitol, which interrupted the joint session of Congress meant to certify the results.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” Pence said in a statement released by his presidential campaign that rebuked his former running mate’s actions.
“Our country is more important than one man. Our Constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”
Prosecutors and the grand jury interviewed dozens of witnesses for more than a year as the investigation unfolded. The jury was convened shortly after Smith was appointed as a special counsel to oversee that investigation and the classified documents case once Trump declared his 2024 candidacy.
Most of the allegations included in the indictment were already exposed last year by the Jan. 6 select committee of Congress, which also interviewed several Trump aides, White House officials and staff, Capitol Police officers and far-right militia members who supported keeping Trump in office.
Their testimony, revealed to the public during a series of explosive hearings, painted a picture of a president desperate to remain in power by any means necessary, despite privately admitting at times that he had lost the election.
The hearings also showed evidence that Trump failed to respond quickly when his supporters began storming the Capitol, instead watching the events unfold on television for hours while continuing to pressure lawmakers to object to the election results. He finally called for order nearly three hours after the attack began.
The committee ultimately recommended the Justice Department charge Trump with four separate criminal offences, including aiding or inciting an insurrection, conspiring to defraud the United States by preventing the transfer of power, conspiring to make false statements through the “fake electors” scheme, and obstructing an official proceeding.
The insurrection charge was ultimately not included in the indictment.
In addition to the federal indictments in the election interference and classified documents cases, Trump also faces state charges in Manhattan for allegedly falsifying business records to hide hush money payments to a porn star alleging an extramarital affair during the 2016 campaign.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and has vowed to stay in the Republican presidential primary, where polling shows he remains the favourite to retake the party’s nomination.
More than half of likely GOP voters are prepared to support Trump as the nominee, according to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average and other similar aggregate polls, which put him as much as 40 points ahead of his closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Republican lawmakers and party officials — even other presidential candidates who are running against him — have rallied to Trump’s defence, accusing the U.S. Justice Department and state prosecutors of interfering in the 2024 election and conservative bias.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy echoed Trump’s statements on social media by accusing the Justice Department of attempting to distract from Republicans’ investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, whom they accuse of conspiring with foreign businesses and governments to enrich themselves.
“House Republicans will continue to uncover the truth about Biden Inc. and the two-tiered system of justice,” McCarthy said on Twitter.
Trump is currently scheduled to stand trial in Manhattan in March 2024, and in Florida in May, though it’s likely those dates could be pushed later. If the schedule stands, the trials would be taking place well into the Republican nominating process but before the nominee is officially declared at the party’s convention in July.
The Fulton County district attorney in Georgia, Fani Willis, has also indicated she will soon hand down an indictment on state charges in her office’s investigation of efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the election results there. She has not indicated if Trump will face charges in that case.
— with files from the Associated Press