Donald Trump for years has promoted baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. In truth, Trump was the one who tried to steal the election, federal prosecutors said Tuesday in a sprawling indictment that paints the former president as desperate to cling to power he knew had been stripped away by voters.
The Justice Department indictment accuses Trump of brazenly conspiring with allies to spread falsehoods and concoct schemes intended to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden as his legal challenges floundered in court.
The felony charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith are built around the words of White House lawyers and others in his inner circle who repeatedly told Trump there was no fraud.
It’s the third time this year the early front-runner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary has been charged in a criminal case. But it’s the first case to try to hold Trump responsible for his efforts to remain in power during the chaotic weeks between his election loss and the attack by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump has said he did nothing wrong, and has accused Smith and the Justice Department of trying to harm his 2024 campaign.
Here’s a look at the charges Trump faces and other key issues in the indictment:
Trump is charged with four counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to prevent others from carrying out their constitutional rights.
In the obstruction charge — which carries penalties of up to 20 years in prison — the official proceeding refers to the Jan. 6, 2021, joint session of Congress at which electoral votes were counted in order to certify Biden as the official winner. Conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding also carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.
That obstruction charge has been brought against hundreds of the more than 1,000 people charged in the Jan. 6 riot, including members of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremist groups. More than 100 people have been convicted at trial or pleaded guilty to the offense.
Conspiracy to defraud the U.S., which is punishable by up to five years in prison, prohibits efforts to obstruct or interfere with government functions “by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest,” the Supreme Court has held. The indictment alleges that Trump used “dishonesty, fraud and deceit” to obstruct the counting and certifying of the election results.
Trump had the right to contest the election — and even falsely claim that he had won, indictment says. The charges, however, stem from what prosecutors say were illegal efforts to subvert the election results and block the peaceful transfer of power.
The indictment alleges a weekslong plot that began with pressure on state lawmakers and election officials to change electoral votes from Biden to Trump, and then evolved into organizing fake slates of pro-Trump electors to be sent to Congress.
Trump and his allies also attempted to use the Justice Department to conduct bogus election-fraud investigations in order to boost his fake electors’ scheme, the indictment says.
As Jan. 6 approached, Trump and his allies pressured Vice President Mike Pence to reject certain electoral votes, and when that failed, the former president directed his supporters to go to the Capitol to obstruct Congress’ certification of the vote, the indictment alleges.
Finally, the indictment says, Trump and his allies tried to exploit his supporters’ attack on the Capitol by redoubling their efforts to spread election lies and convince members of Congress to further delay the certification of Biden’s victory.
“Each of these conspiracies — which built on the widespread mistrust the Defendant was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud — targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election,” the indictment says.
Trump is accused of violating a post-Civil War era civil rights statute that makes it a crime to conspire to interfere with rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution, in this case: the right to vote and have one’s vote counted. It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The provision was originally part of a set of laws passed in 1870 in response to violence and intimidation by members of the Ku Klux Klan aimed at keeping Black people from the polls.
But it has has been used over the years in a wide-range of election fraud cases, including to prosecute conspiracies to stuff ballot boxes or not count certain votes. The conspiracy doesn’t have to be successful, meaning the fraud doesn’t have to actually affect the election.
Trump is the only defendant charged in the indictment, which mentions six co-conspirators. The six people are not explicitly named, but the indictment includes details that make it possible to identify some of them. It’s unclear why they weren’t charged or whether they will be added to the indictment at a later date.
The co-conspirators include an attorney “who was willing to spread knowingly false claims and pursue strategies” that Trump’s 2020 campaign attorneys would not, and an attorney whose “unfounded claims of election fraud” Trump privately acknowledged to others sounded “crazy.” Another co-conspirator is a political consultant who helped submit fake slates of electors for Trump.
The case was filed in Washington’s federal court, where Trump is expected to make his first appearance on Thursday.
For more than two years, judges in that courthouse — which sits within sight of the Capitol — have been hearing the cases of the hundreds of Trump supporters accused of participating in the Jan. 6 riot — many of whom have said they were deluded by the election lies pushed by Trump and his allies.
Trump has signaled that his defense may rest, at least in part, on the idea that he truly believed the election was stolen, saying in a recent social media post, “I have the right to protest an Election that I am fully convinced was Rigged and Stolen, just as the Democrats have done against me in 2016, and many others have done over the ages.”
But prosecutors have amassed a significant amount of evidence showing that Trump was repeatedly told he had lost.
Trump “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 says.
Trump is already scheduled to stand trial in March in the New York case stemming from hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign and in May in the federal case in Florida stemming from classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Smith said prosecutors will seek “a speedy trial” in the latest case.
Unlike in Florida, where Republicans have made steady inroads in recent years, Trump will likely face a challenging jury pool in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, D.C. Of the roughly 100 people who have gone to trial in the Jan. 6 attack, only two people have been cleared of all charges and those cases were decided by judges, not juries.
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