Former United States President Donald Trump has been criminally indicted for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, with prosecutors accusing the Republican politician of attempting to obstruct “a bedrock function” of democracy in order to cling on to power.
The 45-page indictment, filed in Washington, DC on Tuesday by Special Counsel Jack Smith, detailed four felony charges against Trump, some of which carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison.
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They include one count of conspiracy to defraud the US, one count of conspiracy against rights, one count of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and one count of obstructing an official proceeding.
The charges – Trump’s third criminal indictment since March – stemmed from Smith’s sprawling investigation into allegations that the former president sought to reverse his loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
In the indictment, prosecutors alleged that Trump pushed fraud claims he knew to be untrue, pressured state and federal officials – including Vice President Mike Pence – to alter the results and finally incited a violent assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a desperate attempt to undermine the country’s democracy and cling to power.
In a brief statement to reporters, Smith placed the blame for the violence squarely on Trump’s shoulders.
“The attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” Smith said. “It was fuelled by lies – lies by the defendant, targeted at obstructing the bedrock function of the US government,” he added.
Trump was ordered to make an initial appearance in federal court in Washington, DC on Thursday. The case has been assigned to US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who was appointed by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump, who is the frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential contest, said the latest charges amount to election interference. He is already scheduled to go on trial in Florida in May 2024 for allegedly mishandling top-secret government documents.
The former president went on to allege that “the lawlessness of these persecutions is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes”.
The Trump campaign meanwhile called the charges “fake” and asked why it took two-and-a-half years to bring them.
“President Trump will not be deterred by disgraceful and unprecedented political targeting,” it added.
Trump was the only person charged in Tuesday’s indictment.
But prosecutors referenced a half-dozen co-conspirators, including lawyers inside and outside of government who they said had worked with Trump to undo the election results.
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.
Trump’s co-conspirators were not named, but based on the descriptions, they appear to include his 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.
They also include former Department of Justice (DoJ) official Jeffrey Clark, who tried to get himself installed as attorney general so he could launch voter fraud investigations in Georgia and other swing states; and lawyer John Eastman, who advanced the erroneous legal theory that Pence could block the electoral certification.
Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert J Costello, said every statement that the former mayor made “was truthful and expressing his beliefs”. Giuliani “believed there was proof of election fraud, and I have seen the affidavits that back that up”, Costello added.
There was no immediate comment from Eastman and Clark.
“Our investigation of other individuals continues,” Smith said on Tuesday. “In this case, my office will seek a speedy trial, so that our evidence can be tested in court and judged by a jury of citizens.”
Republicans rally behind Trump
The indictment offers a broader picture, beyond the Capitol riot, of attempts Trump allegedly made to subvert the election. It includes a state-by-state look at campaigns to pressure election officials, particularly in key swing states, to reverse Biden’s victory.
In one instance, prosecutors wrote that “the Defendant publicly maligned a Philadelphia City Commissioner for stating on the news that there was no evidence of widespread fraud”.
As a result, the indictment explained, “the Philadelphia City Commissioner and his family received death threats”.
The indictment also points to instances where, for example, Trump accused 30,000 non-citizens of voting in Arizona and more than 10,000 “dead voters” of casting ballots in Georgia, despite being told explicitly that these allegations were false.
In the wake of the indictment, other prominent Republicans rallied to Trump’s side, including Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy, who insinuated the charges were political.
“Just yesterday a new poll showed President Trump is without a doubt Biden’s leading political opponent,” McCarthy wrote on social media.
McCarthy accused Biden of using a “two-tiered system of justice” to distract from his own political troubles – namely, the allegations of influence peddling that encircle his son, Hunter Biden. Other congressional Republicans floated the idea of defunding Special Counsel Smith’s office.
Trump’s closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile issued a statement that avoided identifying the former president by name and did not offer an opinion on the indictment itself. Instead, DeSantis offered a pitch for his own presidential campaign, echoing Republican criticisms of the DoJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), two entities involved in investigating Trump.
“As President, I will end the weaponization of government, replace the FBI Director, and ensure a single standard of justice for all Americans,” he wrote.
Another Republican presidential contender, Vivek Ramaswamy, promised to pardon Trump if elected.
But Pence, Trump’s former vice president, took another opportunity to distance himself from his former boss and rival in the 2024 race.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” he said in a statement.
Democrats, on the other hand, repeated their rallying cry that no political figure is too powerful to be above the law.
In a joint statement, Democratic leaders Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer invoked the consequences of the January 6 Capitol riot, which saw an estimated seven people die in its aftermath.
“The third indictment of Mr. Trump illustrates in shocking detail that the violence of that day was the culmination of a months-long criminal plot led by the former president to defy democracy and overturn the will of the American people,” they wrote.
Despite Trump’s mounting legal woes, public opinion surveys have consistently shown him leading the crowded field for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, with a New York Times/Siena College poll showing him 37 points ahead of DeSantis in the race.
That poll, released a day before the latest indictment, showed Trump with 54 percent support, trouncing DeSantis at 17.
If Trump manages to secure the Republican nomination, he is all but assured of a rematch with his 2020 opponent, Biden. Criminal charges or a successful prosecution would not prevent Trump from continuing his campaign or being elected president.
Former federal prosecutor Melanie Sloan told Al Jazeera she believed the latest indictment would do little to dent Trump’s popularity among Republicans, though she emphasised the grave nature of the charges.
“Trump supporters are incredibly loyal and they will come up with reasons why this is untrue, why this is unfair. Many of them still believe that, because former President Trump said it, that the election was in fact stolen,” Sloan said.
“So they’ll just view this as part of the conspiracy.”
In April, he became the first US president, current or former, to face a criminal indictment when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg filed 34 state-level charges against him for falsifying business records.
That case pertained to a hush-money payment to an adult film star during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Then, in June, Special Counsel Smith filed 37 federal charges alleging that Trump and his valet, Walt Nauta, attempted to retain and conceal classified documents at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, despite requests to surrender them to the FBI and the National Archives.
That indictment was expanded just last week with additional counts against Trump, bringing the total to 40. It also named an additional defendant in the classified documents case: property manager Carlos de Oliveira.
A grand jury in Georgia is also considering state-level charges in a similar investigation into 2020 election meddling. That investigation was announced after an audio recording emerged of a phone call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, wherein he pushed the election official to “find” him extra votes.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you’ve recalculated,” Trump told Raffensperger during the call. That recording also factors in the federal indictment announced on Tuesday.
Prosecutor Fani Willis, meanwhile, has indicated she intends to announce any state charges from the Georgia investigation before September 1.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all the cases against him.