WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump was indicted on felony charges Tuesday for working to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol, with the Justice Department moving to hold him accountable for an unprecedented effort to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
The four-count indictment reveals new details about a dark chapter in American history that has already been the subject of exhaustive federal investigations and captivating public hearings. It cites handwritten notes from former Vice President Mike Pence about Trump’s relentless goading to reject the counting of electoral votes. And it accuses Trump and his allies of exploiting the disruption caused by his supporters’ attack on the Capitol to redouble their efforts to spread false claims of election fraud and persuade members of Congress to further delay the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Even in a year of rapid-succession legal reckonings for Trump, Tuesday’s criminal case, with charges including conspiring to defraud the United States government that he once led, was especially stunning in its allegations that a former president assaulted the underpinnings of democracy in a frantic but ultimately failed effort to cling to power.
“The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” said special counsel Jack Smith, whose office has spent months investigating Trump. “It was fueled by lies, lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government: the nation’s process of collecting counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.”
Trump’s claims of having won the election, said the indictment, were “false, and the Defendant knew they were false. But the defendant repeated and widely disseminated them anyway — to make his knowingly false claims appear legitimate, to create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and to erode public faith in the administration of the election.”
The indictment, the third criminal case brought against the former president as he seeks to reclaim the White House in 2024, follows a long-running federal investigation into schemes by Trump and his allies to subvert the transfer of power and keep him in office despite a decisive loss to Biden.
Trump is due in court Thursday before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, the first step in a legal process that will play out in a courthouse in between the White House he once controlled and the Capitol his supporters once stormed.
The criminal case comes while Trump leads the field of Republicans vying to capture their party’s presidential nomination. It is sure to be dismissed by the former president and his supporters — and even some of his rivals — as just another politically motivated prosecution. Yet the charges stem from one of the most serious threats to American democracy in modern history.
They focus on the turbulent two months after the November 2020 election in which Trump refused to accept his loss and spread lies that victory was stolen from him. The turmoil resulted in riot at the Capitol riot when Trump loyalists violently broke into the building, attacked police officers and disrupted the congressional counting of electoral votes.
In between the election and the riot, Trump urged local election officials to undo voting results in their states, pressured Pence to halt the certification of electoral votes and falsely claimed that the election had been stolen — a notion repeatedly rejected by judges.
The indictment had been expected since Trump said in mid-July that the Justice Department informed him he was a target of its investigation. A bipartisan House committee that spent months investigating the run-up to the Capitol riot also recommended prosecuting Trump on charges, including aiding an insurrection and obstructing an official proceeding.
The mounting criminal cases against Trump — not to mention multiple civil cases — are unfolding in the heat of the 2024 race. A conviction in this case, or any other, would not prevent Trump from pursuing the White House or serving as president.
In New York, state prosecutors have charged Trump with falsifying business records about a hush money payoff to a porn actor before the 2016 election. The trial begins in late March.
In Florida, the Justice Department has brought more than three dozen felony counts against Trump accusing him of illegally possessing classified documents after leaving the White House and concealing them from the government. The trial begins in late May.
Prosecutors in Georgia are investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to reverse his election loss to Biden there in 2020. The district attorney of Fulton County is expected to announce a decision on whether to indict the former president in early August.
The investigation of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election was led by special counsel Smith. His team of prosecutors questioned senior Trump administration officials, including Pence and top lawyers from the Trump White House, before a grand jury in Washington.
Rudy Giuliani, a Trump lawyer who pursued post-election legal challenges, spoke voluntarily to prosecutors as part of a proffer agreement, in which a person’s statements can’t be used against them in any future criminal case that is brought.
Prosecutors also interviewed election officials in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere who came under pressure from Trump and his associates to change voting results in states won by Biden.
Focal points of the Justice Department’s election meddling investigation included the role played by some of Trump’s lawyers, post-election fundraising, a chaotic December 2020 meeting at the White House in which some Trump aides discussed the possibility of seizing voting machines and the enlistment of fake electors to submit certificates to the National Archives and Congress falsely asserting that Trump, not Biden, had won their states’ votes.
Trump has been trying to use the mounting legal troubles to his political advantage, claiming without evidence on social media and at public events that the cases are being driven by Democratic prosecutors out to hurt his 2024 election campaign.
The indictments have helped his campaign raise millions of dollars from supporters, though he raised less after the second than the first, raising questions about whether subsequent charges will have the same impact.
A fundraising committee backing Trump’s candidacy began soliciting contributions just hours after the ex-president revealed he was the focus of the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigation, casting it as “just another vicious act of Election Interference on behalf of the Deep State to try and stop the Silent Majority from having a voice in your own country.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland last year appointed Smith, an international war crimes prosecutor who also led the Justice Department’s public corruption section, as special counsel to investigate efforts to undo the 2020 election and Trump’s retention of hundreds of classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida, home, Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump has derided him as “deranged” and suggested that he is politically motivated, Smith’s past experience includes overseeing significant prosecutions against high-profile Democrats.
The Justice Department’s investigation into the efforts to overturn the 2020 election began well before Smith’s appointment, proceeding alongside separate criminal probes into the rioters themselves.
More than 1,000 people have been charged in connection with the insurrection, including some with seditious conspiracy.
Photo credit AP News/Jose Luis Magana