Donald Trump on Tuesday was hit with criminal charges for a third time in four months — this time arising from efforts to overturn his 2020 U.S. election defeat — as he campaigns to regain the presidency next year.
The four-count indictment alleges Trump conspired to defraud the U.S. by preventing Congress from certifying U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory, and to deprive voters of their right to a fair election.
Trump was ordered to make an initial appearance in federal court on Thursday.
The charges stem from special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into allegations that Trump — the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — sought to reverse his loss to Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Prosecutors wrote that Trump knew his claims that the election was fraudulent were false, but repeated them anyway to “create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger and erode public faith in the administration of the election.”
Trump and others organized fraudulent slates of electors in seven states, all of which he lost, to be certified as official by Congress on Jan. 6, the indictment said.
The indictment lays out numerous examples of Trump’s election falsehoods and notes that close advisers, including senior intelligence officials, told him repeatedly that the results were legitimate.
“These claims were false, and the defendant knew that they were false,” prosecutors wrote.
When the push to certify the fake electors failed, Trump sought to pressure then-vice-president Mike Pence not to allow certification of the election to go forward, and took advantage of the chaos outside the Capitol to do so, according to prosecutors. During the violence, Trump rebuffed calls from his advisers to issue a calming message.
“The defendant attempted to use a crowd of supporters that he had gathered in Washington, D.C., to pressure the vice president to fraudulently alter the election results,” the indictment reads.
The most serious charge against Trump carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, though sentencing is based on numerous factors and is subject to the judge’s discretion.
In a statement, the Trump campaign said he has always followed the law and characterized the indictment as a political “persecution” reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
3rd charge in 4 months
The indictment accused Trump and six unnamed co-conspirators of organizing fraudulent slates of electors in seven states, all of which he lost, to submit their votes to be counted and certified as official by Congress on Jan. 6.
Based on the descriptions, at least one of the accused co-conspirators appears to include Trump’s former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who called state lawmakers in the weeks following the 2020 election to pressure them not to certify their states’ results.
“Every statement that Mayor Giuliani made was truthful and expressing his beliefs,” his attorney Robert Costello told Reuters. “He believed there was proof of election fraud, and I have seen the affidavits that back that up.”
The latest charges represent a second round of federal charges by Smith, who was appointed a special counsel in November by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
In the other special counsel probe, Trump faces a 40-count indictment over unlawfully retaining government documents after leaving office, and obstructing justice. Some of the documents were classified as top secret, and prosecutors accused him of risking some of the most sensitive U.S. national security secrets.
In that case, Trump was accused of ordering employees to delete security videos as he was under investigation for retaining the documents.
The first charges brought against Trump emerged in March when a grand jury convened by Manhattan’s district attorney indicted him. Trump in April pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts accusing him of falsifying business records concerning hush money payments to three individuals, including adult film performer Stormy Daniels, to buy silence over accusations of extramarital affairs.
Trump, 77, leads a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates as he seeks a rematch with Biden, 80, next year. Biden in April launched his re-election campaign.
Trump, who served as president from 2017 to 2021, has shown an ability to survive legal troubles, political controversies and personal behaviour that might sink other politicians. Many Republicans — elected officials and voters — have rallied behind Trump, portraying the charges against him as selective prosecution and a Democratic plot to destroy him politically.
Strategists said that while the indictments could help Trump solidify support within his base and win the Republican nomination, his ability to capitalize on them may be more limited in next year’s general election, when he will have to win over more skeptical moderate Republicans and independents.
While longshot contenders Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd said the indictment should disqualify Trump from seeking office, and Chris Christie said the charges “brought shame to his presidency,” other contenders like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy complained about what they viewed as the weaponization of government.
Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States.
Pence, while promising more comment once he read the full indictment, said it was a reminder that “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States.”
With Republican presidential primary debates beginning later this month, it is expected candidates will be asked if they would consider a potential pardon of Trump were they to be elected as president.
Georgia decision looming
More than 1,000 people have been charged with crimes arising from the Jan. 6, 2021 rampage at the Capitol, including some who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Trump and his allies lost a series of election-related lawsuits challenging the election results based on false claims of fraud. As his presidency wound down, Trump continued to push this false narrative, ignoring warnings from some of his White House advisers, former Attorney General William Barr and other officials that there was no evidence of widespread fraud.
A 2022 investigative report by a Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives committee found that Trump “corruptly pressured” former vice-president Pence to refuse to count the state-by-state electoral votes that determine an election’s outcome during a joint session of Congress.
In addition to the three indictments, Trump faces a fourth criminal investigation by a county prosecutor in Georgia into accusations he sought to undo his 2020 election loss in that state.