Donald Trump’s historic indictment for trying to overturn the 2020 election paints a picture of a former president so determined to hang on to power that he put the very foundations of American democracy at risk.
Trump’s legal troubles have already thrust the United States into uncharted territory, but the latest charges from special counsel Jack Smith are in a different league.
While two previous indictments focused on hush money payments to a porn star and hiding secret government documents, this one lays out in compelling detail a complex plot with half a dozen conspirators to effectively overthrow an elected government.
Adding even more weight to the case is the fact that the 77-year-old real estate tycoon is seeking to recapture the White House and holds a commanding lead in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“The indictments of Trump are truly historic in the sense that no US president or former president before Trump has been indicted, much less charged with spreading lies regarding an election,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, singled out the unique nature of the legal case against a former commander-in-chief in stark terms.
“It is hard to overstate the stakes riding on this indictment and prosecution,” Hasen wrote on Slate.com. “It is perhaps the most important indictment ever handed down to safeguard American democracy and the rule of law in any US court against anyone.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that the conduct of this prosecution will greatly influence whether the US remains a thriving democracy after 2024.”
Smith, the special counsel, linked Trump’s actions following his November 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden directly to the attack two months later on the US Capitol, which he called an “unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy.”
“It was fueled by lies,” Smith said. “Lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the US government, the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.”
Historian Jon Meacham, whose biography of former president Andrew Jackson won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, said the charges against the twice-impeached Trump stem from what he called one of the “darkest hours” in American history.
“What we haven’t had before is a person so powerful that they can bend the Constitution to the point of breaking,” Meacham said on MSNBC. “(Trump) put fundamentally his own appetite, his own ambition, ahead of everything else.”
The 45-page indictment brought by Smith charges Trump with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy to deprive Americans of a civil right — their votes.
The “criminal scheme,” as Smith described it, meticulously outlines the various efforts taken by Trump and his unnamed co-conspirators to overturn the election results using accusations that they knew were untrue.
“The purpose of the conspiracy was to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election by using knowingly false claims of election fraud,” the indictment says. “Despite having lost, the Defendant was determined to remain in power.”
The plot allegedly included repeated attempts to pressure vice president Mike Pence into throwing out Electoral College votes at the January 6 joint session of Congress.
When Pence told Trump during a January 1 meeting he had no constitutional authority to do so, the president reportedly responded by saying “You’re too honest.”
Trump and his co-conspirators are also accused of submitting fraudulent slates of electors to Congress in a bid to reverse the results in seven key states won by Biden.
Trump allegedly sought to enlist senior Justice Department officials in his plot, telling them at one point to “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
The efforts culminated in a fiery speech by the president near the White House on January 6 and the subsequent attack on the US Capitol by his supporters, who were seeking to block the certification of Biden’s victory.
Trump, who has denounced the indictment as politically motivated, is expected to make his first court appearance to answer the charges before a US District Court Judge in Washington on Thursday.