Eight weeks ago, when charges were unveiled related to his mishandling of classified documents, Donald Trump became the first former American president ever to face a federal indictment. On August 1st he became the first to battle two sets of federal charges at the same time. The Department of Justice (DoJ) accused the former president of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election—a race he still insists he won—in violation of three federal laws. The new charges are the gravest to date against Mr Trump, and will inject yet more jeopardy into the 2024 presidential race.
As in June, it was the defendant who broke the news. On July 18th, in a vituperative social-media post, Mr Trump acknowledged that he had received a letter from the DoJ naming him as a target. When the indictment arrived on August 1st he likened the department’s actions to those of “Nazi Germany in the 1930s”.
The new charges follow a lengthy process. A 17-month investigation by a congressional committee advised the DoJ to bring criminal charges. In December Jack Smith, who was appointed special counsel by Merrick Garland, the attorney-general, took up that mantle in what became an eight-month investigation of his own. The probe culminated in Mr Smith’s decision to charge Mr Trump with criminal liability for his efforts to remain in the White House despite losing the election in 2020.
Notably, Mr Trump’s speech on January 6th 2021, in which he urged his supporters to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell”, was not central to the charges. No direct link between Mr Trump’s words and the attack on the Capitol is alleged in the 45-page charging document. In fact, Mr Smith states that Mr Trump had a First Amendment right to express his views on the election, and “even to claim, falsely”, that election fraud was responsible for his defeat.
Rather than try to tie Mr Trump’s words to the rioters’ actions in an incitement charge, Mr Smith meticulously outlines how his efforts in the days and weeks after the election amounted to a conspiracy to defraud America, obstruct Congress’s official proceeding certifying the election, and deprive Americans of their civil rights by wiping away their votes for Joe Biden. Mr Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud “were false”, the document reads, and Mr Trump “knew that they were false”.
As evidence that Mr Trump was aware that his loss was legitimate, the document lists a host of officials and advisers who told him the truth: that “various allegations of fraud were unsupported”. Mike Pence, the vice-president, is one. Others include senior officials in the DoJ, the director of national intelligence, senior campaign staffers, allies in state legislatures, and dozens of state and federal judges. People Mr Trump depended on for “candid advice on important matters” told him bluntly that his claims of substantial fraud were false.
The former president solicited a lot of help in trying to upend his electoral loss, the document asserts. Mr Smith refers—not by name but by their respective roles in the scheme—to six co-conspirators, including a quintet of lawyers. He did not announce charges against any of them. But he hinted that they should not rest easy. “Our investigation of other individuals continues,” Mr Smith said at a press conference, adding that the DoJ was “committed to ensuring accountability for those criminally responsible” for the events of January 6th 2021.
The calendar may have figured prominently in the decision to limit the case to Mr Trump for now. Mr Smith emphasised his desire for “a speedy trial”—presumably one that might be held before the November 2024 election. A half-dozen extra defendants would almost certainly have put that goal out of reach.
Yet much could depend on the outcome of that vote. Even with charges limited to a single defendant and a quick schedule set by the judge, Tanya Chutkan, time will be on Mr Trump’s side if he wins the election. Sitting presidents are immune from criminal prosecution, meaning all Mr Trump’s pending trials and appeals—the two federal indictments, as well as state charges related to hush-money payments in New York (the Stormy Daniels case), and possible election-fraud charges in Georgia—would be placed on hold. Final resolution of his legal troubles could be delayed until 2029 or beyond. On the other hand, should Mr Trump lose again, the cases will proceed as normal. Fifteen months out, polls suggest that he and Mr Biden are neck-and-neck. ■