On Tuesday, Donald Trump was indicted on felony charges for his involvement in attempting to overturn the 2020 election results, which eventually led to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol.
The Justice Department’s four-count indictment is the third criminal case against Trump, shedding light on a dark chapter in American history that has already been subject to extensive federal investigations and gripping public hearings.
The indictment outlines a months-long campaign of spreading lies about the election results, culminating in the chaotic insurrection at the Capitol, during which Trump sought to exploit the violence to further delay the counting of votes that confirmed his defeat.
This criminal case against Trump is especially remarkable, as it accuses a former president of assaulting the “bedrock function” of democracy. It marks the first time a defeated president is being held accountable for his desperate, yet ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to hold onto power, culminating in the Capitol attack.
Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, whose office spent months investigating Trump, called the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol an unprecedented assault on American democracy, fueled by lies spread by the defendant to obstruct the process of collecting, counting, and certifying the presidential election results.
Though Trump is the only one charged in the indictment, prosecutors indirectly referred to around six co-conspirators, including lawyers both inside and outside the government who worked with Trump to reverse the election results. The indictment cites handwritten notes from former Vice President Mike Pence, adding weight to Trump’s relentless pressure on Pence to reject the electoral votes.
The indictment alleges that Trump and his allies tried to exploit the violence and chaos by calling lawmakers into the evening of January 6 to delay the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
On Thursday, Trump is due in court before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, initiating a legal process unfolding between the White House he once controlled and the Capitol his supporters once stormed. Despite being dismissed by Trump, his supporters, and some of his rivals as politically motivated, the charges stem from one of the most serious threats to American democracy in recent history.
The indictment focuses on the tumultuous two months following the November 2020 election, during which Trump refused to accept his defeat and propagated false claims that the election was stolen. The ensuing turmoil led to the Capitol riot, where Trump loyalists violently breached the building, attacked police officers, and disrupted the congressional counting of electoral votes.
Trump’s false claims of victory were knowingly spread, according to the indictment, to give legitimacy to his baseless assertions, sow mistrust and anger, and erode public confidence in the election process.
The mounting criminal cases against Trump are happening amidst the 2024 presidential race. However, a conviction in this case, or any other, would not prevent Trump from running for or serving as president. Nevertheless, as president, he could theoretically appoint an attorney general to dismiss the charges or potentially pardon himself.
In other jurisdictions, Trump faces additional legal challenges. In New York, he has been charged with falsifying business records related to a hush money payment to a porn actor before the 2016 election. In Florida, he faces more than three dozen felony counts for illegally possessing classified documents after leaving the White House and concealing them from the government. In Georgia, prosecutors are investigating his efforts to reverse his election loss in 2020.
The investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election was led by special counsel Jack Smith, who interviewed senior Trump administration officials, including Pence and White House lawyers, as part of the probe.
Despite Trump’s attempts to use the mounting legal issues to his political advantage, claiming without evidence that they are driven by Democratic prosecutors aiming to hurt his 2024 election campaign, the indictments have helped his campaign raise millions of dollars from supporters.
Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith as special counsel to investigate the efforts to overturn the 2020 election and Trump’s retention of classified documents. Despite Trump’s criticisms of him, Smith has a history of overseeing significant prosecutions against high-profile Democrats.
The Justice Department’s investigation into the efforts to overturn the 2020 election began before Smith’s appointment and proceeded alongside separate criminal probes into the Capitol rioters, resulting in over 1,000 people being charged, including some with seditious conspiracy.