A woman holds a banner in front of the federal courthouse
A woman holds a banner in front of the federal courthouse where former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is expected later this week to answer charges after a grand jury returned an indictment of Trump in the special counsel's investigation of efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat in Washington, on August 1, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Washington: Donald Trump was indicted on felony charges Tuesday for working to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the US Capitol, with the Justice Department acting to hold him accountable for an unprecedented effort to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power and threaten American democracy.

The four-count indictment , the third criminal case against Trump, provided deeper insight into a dark moment that has already been the subject of exhaustive federal investigations and captivating public hearings. It chronicles a months-long campaign of lies about the election results and says that, even when those falsehoods resulted in a chaotic insurrection at the Capitol, Trump sought to exploit the violence by pointing to it as a reason to further delay the counting of votes that sealed his defeat.

Even in a year of rapid-succession legal reckonings for Trump, Tuesday’s indictment, with charges including conspiring to defraud the United States government that he once led, was stunning in its allegations that a former president assaulted the “bedrock function” of democracy. It’s the first time the defeated president, who is the early front-runner for next year's Republican presidential nomination, is facing legal consequences for his frantic but ultimately failed effort to cling to power.

“The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” said Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith , whose office has spent months investigating Trump. “It was fueled by lies, lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government: the nation’s process of collecting counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.”

The Trump campaign called the charges “fake” and asked why it took two-and-a-half years to bring them.

Trump was the only person charged in Tuesday's indictment. But prosecutors obliquely 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. They also advanced legally dubious schemes to enlist slates of fake electors in battleground states won by Democrat Joe Biden to falsely claim that Trump had actually won them.

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The indictment accuses the defeated president and his allies of trying to “exploit the violence and chaos” by calling lawmakers into the evening on Jan. 6 to delay the certification of Biden’s victory.

It also cites handwritten notes from former Vice President Mike Pence that give gravitas to Trump’s relentless goading to reject the electoral votes. Pence, who is challenging Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, declined overtures from a House panel that investigated the insurrection and sought to avoid testifying before the special counsel. He appeared only after losing a court fight, with prosecutors learning that Trump in one conversation derided him as “too honest” to stop the certification.

Trump is due in court Thursday, the first step in a legal process that will play out in a courthouse situated between the White House he once controlled and the Capitol his supporters once stormed. The case is already being dismissed by the former president and his supporters — and even some of his rivals — as just another politically motivated prosecution.

Yet the case stems from one of the most serious threats to American democracy in modern history.

Turbulent two months

The indictment centers on the turbulent two months after the November 2020 election in which Trump refused to accept his loss and spread lies that victory was stolen from him. The turmoil resulted in the riot at the Capitol , when Trump loyalists violently broke into the building, attacked police officers and disrupted the congressional counting of electoral votes.

In between the election and the riot, Trump urged local election officials to undo voting results in their states, pressured Pence to halt the certification of electoral votes and falsely claimed that the election had been stolen — a notion repeatedly rejected by judges. Among those lies, prosecutors say, were claims that more than 10,000 dead voters had voted in Georgia along with tens of thousands of double votes in Nevada. Each claim had been rebutted by courts or state or federal officials, the indictment says.

Prosecutors say Trump knew his claims of having won the election were false but he "repeated and widely disseminated them anyway — to make his knowingly false claims appear legitimate, to create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and to erode public faith in the administration of the election.”

The document carefully outlined arguments that Trump has been making to defend his conduct, that he had every right to challenge the results, to use the courts, even to lie about it in the process. But in stark detail, the indictment outlines how the former president instead took criminal steps to reverse the clear verdict voters had rendered.

The indictment had been expected since Trump said in mid-July that the Justice Department had informed him he was a target of its investigation. A bipartisan House committee that spent months investigating the run-up to the Capitol riot also recommended prosecuting Trump on charges, including aiding an insurrection and obstructing an official proceeding.

The indictment includes charges of conspiring to defraud the US, conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and violating a post-Civil War Reconstruction Era civil rights statute that makes it a crime to conspire to violate rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution — in this case, the right to vote.

Criminal cases

The mounting criminal cases are unfolding in the heat of the 2024 race. A conviction in this case, or any other, would not prevent Trump from pursuing the White House or serving as president, though Trump as president could theoretically appoint an attorney general to dismiss the charges or potentially try to pardon himself.

In New York, state prosecutors have charged Trump with falsifying business records about a hush money payoff to a porn actor before the 2016 election. The trial is set to begin in March.

In Florida, the Justice Department has brought more than three dozen felony counts, accusing him of illegally possessing classified documents after leaving the White House and concealing them from investigators. That trial begins in May.

Prosecutors in Georgia are also investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to reverse his election loss to Biden there. The district attorney of Fulton County is expected to announce charging decisions within weeks.

Smith's team has cast a broad net as part of his federal investigation, with his team questioning senior Trump administration officials, including Pence , before a grand jury in Washington. Prosecutors also interviewed election officials in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and other battleground states won by Biden who were pressured by the Trump team to change voting results.

Rudy Giuliani, a Trump lawyer who pursued post-election legal challenges, spoke voluntarily to prosecutors . Giuliani was not named in the indictment, but appears to match the description of one of the co-conspirators. A spokesman for Giuliani said Tuesday night that Trump had a “good-faith basis” for the actions he took.

Attorney General Merrick Garland last year appointed Smith, an international war crimes prosecutor who also led the Justice Department’s public corruption section, as special counsel to investigate efforts to undo the election as well as Trump’s retention of classified documents at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump has derided him as “deranged” and called him politically motivated, Smith’s past experience includes overseeing significant prosecutions against high-profile Democrats.

The Justice Department’s investigations began well before Smith’s appointment, proceeding alongside separate criminal probes into the rioters themselves. More than 1,000 people have been charged in connection with the insurrection, including some with seditious conspiracy.

The legal woes of Donald Trump
Here are the key cases involving the 77-year-old one-term president - and others that could materialize:

2020 election interference

Special Counsel Jack Smith unveiled four new charges against Trump related to efforts to overturn the election results.
Trump is charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, as well as conspiracy to obstruct and obstruction of an official proceeding - the January 6, 2021 meeting of a joint session of Congress held to certify Biden's election victory.
He is also charged with conspiracy to deny Americans the right to vote and to have one's vote counted.
"Each of these conspiracies... 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 said.
The indictment mentions six co-conspirators but none are identified - Trump, currently the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is the only named defendant.
Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, as Congress met to certify the presidential election results - an assault that left at least five people dead and 140 police officers injured.
Before the Capitol attack, Trump delivered a fiery speech urging the crowd to "fight like hell."

Classified documents

Trump, in another indictment brought by Smith, is accused of endangering national security by holding onto top secret nuclear and defense documents after leaving the White House.
Trump kept the files - which included records from the Pentagon, CIA and National Security Agency - unsecured at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida and thwarted official efforts to retrieve them, according to the indictment.
Trump was initially charged with 31 counts of "willful retention of national defense information," each punishable by up to 10 years in prison. An additional count was added last week.
He also faces charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, making false statements and other offenses.
Last week, a superseding indictment also added an extra count under the Espionage Act related to Trump allegedly retaining a classified document "concerning military activity in a foreign country."
The federal judge in the case has set a trial date of May 20, 2024, at the height of the presidential campaign.

Stormy hush money

A New York grand jury indicted Trump in March over hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Prosecutors say the money was paid prior to the 2016 election to silence Daniels over claims she had a tryst with Trump in 2006 - a year after he married Melania Trump.
Late in the campaign, Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen arranged a payment of $130,000 to Daniels in exchange for her pledge of confidentiality.
That case, in which he faces 34 felony counts, is due to go to trial next March, in the middle of the Republican primary election season.

Georgia election meddling

Trump is also being investigated in the southern state of Georgia for pressuring officials there to overturn Biden's 2020 election victory - incidents that were also referred to in Tuesday's federal indictment.
Evidence includes a taped phone call in which he asked Georgia's then-secretary of state to "find" enough votes to reverse the result.
The top prosecutor in Georgia's Fulton County, Fani Willis, has assembled a special grand jury that could see Trump facing conspiracy charges connected to election fraud.
In unusually public remarks, the grand jury's forewoman in February said the 23-member panel had recommended indictments of multiple people, including "certainly names that you would recognize."
She did not say whether Trump was among them.

Other probes

Trump was found liable recently in a civil case for sexually abusing and defaming an American former magazine columnist, E. Jean Carroll, in 1996, and ordered to pay her $5 million in damages.
In New York, the state attorney general Letitia James has filed a civil suit against Trump and three of his children, accusing them of fraud by over-valuing assets to secure loans and then under-valuing them to minimize taxes.
James is seeking $250 million in penalties as well as banning Trump and his children from serving as executives at companies in New York.
Trump has denied all wrongdoing.