The presidential transfer of power had always proceeded in a “peaceful and orderly manner” throughout U.S. history, an indictment filed Tuesday by the Department of Justice noted.
Then came Donald Trump.
“The Defendant, DONALD J. TRUMP, was the forty-fifth President of the United States and a candidate for re-election in 2020,” the indictment explains. “The Defendant lost the 2020 presidential election.”
“Despite having lost, the Defendant was determined to remain in power. So for more than two months following election day on November 3, 2020, the Defendant spread lies that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that he had actually won. These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false.”
The indictment — Trump’s third in four months — continues on like this for 45 pages, using crisp, matter-of-fact language to describe Trump’s alleged scheme to disrupt “the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying” the 2020 election through “pervasive and destabilizing lies” that fomented an “intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger.”
The charges detail almost nothing that was not already public knowledge, either because the actions happened in real-time for everyone to see or because the House January 6th committee already revealed them. But they mark the first time Trump will potentially face consequences for his actions in the lead-up to the historic January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
After facing charges in New York for falsifying business records and a previous federal indictment for his mishandling of classified documents, this indictment makes a broader case against Trump and his stewardship of American democracy — right as he is waging a campaign to lead it once again.
Here are the details you should know:
To add to the 74 criminal charges that Trump has already received from New York prosecutors and from the Justice Department, Special Counsel Jack Smith added four new charges against the former president in Tuesday’s indictment:
- Conspiracy to defraud the United States by “using dishonesty, fraud, and deceit” to impair the collection, counting, and certification of the 2020 election results.
- Conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, the January 6 election certification by Congress.
- Obstruction of an official proceeding.
- Conspiracy against rights, specifically “the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted”
Similarly to the January 6th committee, in the indictment, Smith lays out a multi-step plot by Trump to overturn the 2020 election:
- Using “knowingly false claims of election fraud” to push state legislators and election officials to incorrectly certify the election in his favor.
- Organizing “fraudulent slates of electors” who signed certificates falsely representing that Trump had won seven key battleground states.
- Attempting to use the power of the Justice Department to “conduct sham election crime investigations” and falsely present the fraudulent electors as legitimate.
- Pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to use his ceremonial role in the January 6th proceeding to certify the fraudulent elector slates, rather than the real ones.
- Exploiting a “large and angry” crowd of supporters who Trump had “deceived into believing” his election lies and whom he “directed...to the Capitol to obstruct the certification proceeding” as a way to further exert pressure on Pence and members of Congress.
Smith also named six co-conspirators who allegedly worked with Trump to “assist him in his criminal efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election and retain power.” They are not named in the indictment, but five of the six are easily identifiable:
- Co-Conspirator 1, an attorney who “spread knowingly false claims about the election,” is Rudy Giuliani.
- Co-Conspirator 2, an attorney who “devised and attempted to implement a strategy” for Pence to overturn the election, is John Eastman.
- Co-Conspirator 3, an attorney whose claims Trump “embraced and publicly amplified,” is Sidney Powell.
- Co-Conspirator 4, a Justice Department official who worked with Trump to subvert the DOJ’s powers after the election, is Jeffrey Clark.
- Co-Conspirator 5, an attorney who assisted in creating the fraudulent elector plan, is Kenneth Chesebro.
- Co-Conspirator 6 is described as a “political consultant” who “helped implement” the fraudulent elector plan. As several figures could fit that description, their identity is unknown.
None of the co-conspirators were charged in Tuesday’s indictment, although Smith said in a statement that his investigation “continues,” raising the possibility of further charges down the line.
You can read the full indictment here. Below are a few key excerpts, drawn directly from the indictment.
Trump telling Pence he’s “too honest”
On January 1, the Defendant called the Vice President and berated him because he had learned that the Vice President had opposed a lawsuit seeking a judicial decision that, at the certification, the Vice President had the authority to reject or return votes to the states under the Constitution. The Vice President responded that he thought there was no constitutional basis for such authority and that it was improper. In response, the Defendant told the Vice President, “You’re too honest.”
Clark mentioning the Insurrection Act
The Deputy White House Counsel reiterated to Co-Conspirator 4 that there had not been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that if the Defendant remained in office nonetheless, there would be “riots in every major city in the United States.” Co-Conspirator 4 responded, “Well, [Deputy White House Counsel], that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”
(The Insurrection Act empowers the president to deploy the U.S. military to quash riots or rebellions in the country.)
Trump being told his claims were false
These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false. In fact, the Defendant was notified repeatedly that his claims were untrue often by the people on whom he relied for candid advice on important matters and who were best positioned to know the facts and he deliberately disregarded the truth.
The indictment then goes on to list several people who told Trump his election claims were incorrect, including Pence, Justice Department officials, senior White House attorneys, and others.
Trump privately calling Powell’s claims crazy
On November 25, Co-Conspirator 3 filed a lawsuit against the Governor of Georgia falsely alleging “massive election fraud” accomplished through the voting machine company's election software and hardware. Before the lawsuit was even filed, the Defendant retweeted a post promoting it. The Defendant did this despite the fact that when he had discussed Conspirator 3’s far-fetched public claims regarding the voting machine company in private with advisors, the Defendant had conceded that they were unsupported and that Co-Conspirator 3 sounded “crazy.”
Tuesday’s indictment was brought in the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., and the case was randomly assigned to one of its judges, Tanya Chutkan.
Chutkan was appointed to the D.C. district court by Barack Obama in 2014. She has gained a reputation as one of the toughest punishers of Capitol rioters in the hundreds of January 6th cases that have come before the court; she is the only judge to have sentenced any Capitol rioters to harsher punishments than prosecutors recommended.
She has also handled cases directly involving Trump before, having ruled against him in a November 2021 case in which he sought to resist a subpoena from the House January 6th committee.
“Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President,” Chutkan wrote at the time, knocking down Trump’s claims of executive privilege in the case.
So far, the response to Trump’s third indictment has been largely predictable — and in line with the response to the previous two.
Other Republican candidates who criticized him after the previous indictments, including Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, were more critical. Notably, however, former Vice President Mike Pence joined the Trump critics this time after defending his former boss from the previous charges.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” Pence wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter. Pence, of course, is a central figure in the indictment: his contemporaneous notes are cited repeatedly to lay out Trump’s attempt to pressure him to overturn the election on January 6th.
Elsewhere, the routine was the same as before. On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders released a statement bashing Trump while Republican leaders (sans Mitch McConnell, who was silent) supported him. At the White House, President Biden declined to comment, instead spending the night sharing a seafood dinner with his wife and taking in the movie “Oppenheimer.”
On the legal end: Trump has been ordered to appear in D.C. court tomorrow at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. A timeline will eventually be set for the trial, which will take place alongside Trump’s two other upcoming criminal trials.
The former president is also expected to face charges in the coming weeks in Georgia, where Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has also been investigating his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Much of the conduct Willis is expected to charge on is included in Smith’s indictment, including Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger urging him to “find” 11,780 votes.
On the political side of the ledger, it’s unclear if much will change. After years of anticipation — and warnings that a January 6th indictment would be met with new riots imitating the original — the indictment no longer seems as earth-shattering now that Trump has received two already, both of which have passed with fairly little furor, at least relative to their historic nature.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released this week found Trump’s support in the 2024 Republican primary above 50%, much higher than all of his rivals combined. 71% of GOP primary voters in the poll said Trump has “not committed any serious federal crimes,” an opinion that is not expected to change with the new indictment.
Looking ahead to the general election, 51% of all registered voters said Trump had committed serious crimes — a much higher number, but one that has been essentially unchanged since the indictments were released. One year ago, 49% of voters said the same thing.
Opinions on Trump have remained remarkably stable through the investigations and indictments. In June 2020, in the Times/Siena poll, his favorability rating stood at 40% and his unfavorability rating stood at 56%. Today — after the 2020 election, January 6th, the documents scandal, and dozens of criminal charges — his favorability rating in the poll stood at 41% and his unfavorability rating stood at 55%.
The day ahead.
At the White House: President Biden is on vacation. Vice President Harris will meet with Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai of Mongolia.
At the Capitol: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.
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