Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the charges is former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. He works as a legal commentator, columnist and trial lawyer. (Produced by Alexandra Silets)
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 U.S. Capitol, with the Justice Department moving to hold him accountable for an unprecedented effort to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
The four-count indictment, the third criminal case against Trump, provided deeper insight into a dark chapter in American history 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 culminated in a chaotic insurrection at the Capitol, Trump sought to exploit that violence by trying to further delay the counting of votes that sealed his defeat.
Even in a year of rapid-succession legal reckonings for Trump, Tuesday’s criminal case, with charges including conspiring to defraud the United States government that he once led, was especially stunning in its allegations that a former president assaulted the “bedrock function” of democracy. It’s the first time the defeated president is being held to account for his frantic but ultimately failed effort to cling to power, culminating in the Capitol attack.
“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.”
Though Trump was the only one charged in Tuesday’s indictment, 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. It cites handwritten notes from former Vice President Mike Pence that give gravitas to Trump’s relentless goading to reject the electoral votes, with Pence recounting how Trump in one conversation derided him as “too honest” to stop the certification.
And it 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 Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump is due in court Thursday before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, the first step in a legal process that will play out in a courthouse in 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 charges stem from one of the most serious threats to American democracy in modern history.
The indictment, which arrives as Trump remains the dominant frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential contest, 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.
Trump’s claims of having won the election, the indictment says, were “false, and the Defendant knew they were false. But the defendant 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 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 U.S., 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.
The mounting criminal cases against Trump 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 even 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 begins in late March.
In Florida, the Justice Department has brought more than three dozen felony counts against Trump accusing him of illegally possessing classified documents after leaving the White House and concealing them from the government. The trial begins in late May.
Prosecutors in Georgia are investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to reverse his election loss to Biden there in 2020. The district attorney of Fulton County is expected to announce a decision on whether to indict the former president within weeks.
The investigation of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election was led by special counsel Smith. His team of prosecutors questioned senior Trump administration officials, including Pence and top lawyers from the Trump White House, before a grand jury in Washington.
Rudy Giuliani, a Trump lawyer who pursued post-election legal challenges, spoke voluntarily to prosecutors as part of a proffer agreement, in which a person’s statements can’t be used against them in any future criminal case that is brought. Giuliani was not named in the indictment, but appears to match the description of one of the co-conspirators. A spokesman for Giuliani said Trump had a “good-faith basis” for the actions he took.
Prosecutors also interviewed election officials in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere who came under pressure from Trump and his associates to change voting results in states won by Biden.
Trump has been trying to use the mounting legal troubles to his political advantage, claiming without evidence on social media and at public events that the cases are being driven by Democratic prosecutors out to hurt his 2024 election campaign.
The indictments have helped his campaign raise millions of dollars from supporters, though he raised less after the second than the first, raising questions about whether subsequent charges will have the same impact.
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 2020 election and Trump’s retention of hundreds of classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida, home, Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump has derided him as “deranged” and suggested that he is politically motivated, Smith’s past experience includes overseeing significant prosecutions against high-profile Democrats.
The Justice Department’s investigation into the efforts to overturn the 2020 election 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.