Former US President Donald Trump has been criminally charged for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The four-count, 45-page indictment unsealed on Tuesday, charges Trump with conspiring to defraud the United States by preventing Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory and conspiring to deprive voters of their right to a fair election.
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The former president has been ordered to make an initial appearance in federal court in Washington, DC, on Thursday. It marks the third time this year that Trump, who is the early frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, has been charged in a criminal case.
Trump has said he did nothing wrong and has accused Special Counsel Jack Smith, who led the investigation against him, and the Justice Department of trying to harm his 2024 campaign.
Here is a look at the federal charges and what might happen next.
What is Trump charged with?
Trump is charged with four counts: conspiracy to defraud the US, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy to prevent others from carrying out their constitutional rights.
The indictment is built around the words of Trump’s advisers, White House lawyers and others in the former president’s inner circle who repeatedly told him there was no fraud in the 2020 election. Yet, according to the indictment, Trump pushed fraud claims he knew to be untrue, pressured state and federal officials – including former Vice President Mike Pence – to alter the results and finally incited a violent assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a desperate attempt to undermine democracy and cling to power.
The charge of conspiracy to defraud the US that Trump faces is punishable by up to five years in prison. It alleges that the government would have been a victim of fraud if he and at least six co-conspirators succeeded in overturning the election results on false pretences.
Prosecutors will need to prove that Trump took at least one “overt act”, or a clear step to advance a criminal scheme, according to legal experts. That could include a number of publicly-reported actions the former president took after his loss, including calling Georgia’s secretary of state and asking him to “find” enough votes to deliver Trump a win.
In the obstruction charges, the official proceedings refer to the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021, at which electoral votes were to be counted to certify Biden as the official winner.
The indictment alleges a weeks-long plot that began with pressure on state legislators and election officials to change electoral votes from Biden to Trump, and then evolved into organising fake slates of pro-Trump electors to be sent to Congress. The indictment says Trump and his allies also attempted to use the Justice Department to conduct bogus election-fraud investigations to boost his fake electors’ scheme.
As January 6 approached, Trump and his allies pressured his deputy Pence to reject certain electoral votes. And when that failed, the indictment says the former president directed his supporters to go to the US Capitol to obstruct Congress’s certification of the vote.
The obstruction of an official proceeding carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, while conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding also carries a similar sentence.
Those charges have been brought against hundreds of the more than 1,000 people charged in the January 6 riot, including members of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys groups.
More than 100 people have been convicted at trial or pleaded guilty to the offence.
What is the ‘conspiracy against rights’ charge?
Trump is also accused of violating a post-Civil War law 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 is 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 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 does not have to be successful, meaning the fraud does not have to actually affect the election.
The Justice Department won a conviction on the charge earlier this year in the case of Douglass Mackey, a far-right propagandist from Florida who was accused of conspiring with other internet influencers to spread fraudulent messages to supporters of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in an effort to suppress the vote in 2016.
Who are Trump’s co-conspirators?
Trump is the only defendant charged in the indictment, which mentions six unnamed co-conspirators.
It is not clear why they were not charged or whether they will be added to the indictment at a later date.
Based on the descriptions, they appear to include Trump’s former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who called several state legislators in the weeks following the 2020 election to pressure them not to certify their state’s results; former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, who tried to get himself installed as attorney general so he could launch voter fraud investigations in Georgia and other swing states; and lawyer John Eastman, who advanced the erroneous legal theory that Pence could block the electoral certification.
Media in the US identified the other co-conspirators as lawyer Sidney Powell, who filed a lawsuit against the governor of the state of Georgia alleging “massive election fraud”, and attorneys Jim Troupis and Kenneth Chesebro, who allegedly helped devise a plan to submit fake slates of electors for Trump to obstruct Congress’s certification of the election results.
In a statement, Giuliani’s adviser, Ted Goodman, accused the Biden administration of targeting Trump simply for “daring to ask questions” about the election.
There was no immediate comment from Clark and Eastman.
What happens next?
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 court – which sits within sight of the Capitol – have been hearing the cases of the hundreds of Trump supporters accused of participating in the January 6 riot, many of whom have said they were deluded by the election lies pushed by Trump and his allies.
Trump has signalled that his defence may rest, at least in part, on the idea that he truly believed the election was stolen. In a recent social media post, he said: “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 that he 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 a New York case stemming from hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign and in May in a federal case in Florida stemming from classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
An updated indictment in the classified documents case that was unsealed last week added new charges involving accusations that Trump tried to get Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage deleted after it was requested by investigators.
Unlike in Florida, where Republicans have made steady inroads in recent years, Trump will likely face a challenging jury pool in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, DC. Of the roughly 100 people who have gone to trial in the January 6 attack, only two people have been cleared of all charges and those cases were decided by judges, not juries.