‘The main event’: 2020 election indictment is most serious against Trump

Legal experts say charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 vote are more damaging than other cases Trump is facing.

People waving Trump banners and American flags gather before the US Capitol
Supporters of former President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 [File: John Minchillo/Reuters]

Washington, DC – Donald Trump had already made history twice by becoming the first former United States president to be criminally prosecuted at the federal and state levels.

But experts warn that the third batch of charges against him — made public on Tuesday — are the most damaging legally and politically.

“They’re probably the most significant legal case in the nation’s history,” said Paul Brace, a professor emeritus at Rice University.

The latest indictment accuses Trump of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results. Federal prosecutors have also linked him to the US Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters overran the building to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

Brace added that, while the previous charges against Trump are not trivial, “undermining American elections and the peaceful transfer of power” is especially grave.

Trump had refused to accept his loss to Biden, claiming falsely that the election was decided by widespread fraud.

Former President Donald Trump speaks with supporters at the Westside Conservative Breakfast, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Former President Donald Trump speaks has denied wrongdoing in all the cases against him [File: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo]

‘This is the main event’

John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera the latest indictment takes “centre stage” amongst Trump’s legal woes.

“This is the main event,” Coffee said of the 2020 election case. “This is the charge that outweighs and certainly dwarfs all the other cases.”

Previously, in June, Trump was indicted on federal charges for retaining secret government documents after leaving office early in 2021 and allegedly obstructing attempts to retrieve them. He has pleaded not guilty.

He was also charged in New York in April on allegations that he improperly altered business records to conceal a hush-money payment made to an adult film star in advance of the 2016 elections.

Trump denies wrongdoing in all the indictments against him, criticising them as politically motivated attempts to derail his 2024 campaign for the White House.

But David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, sees Tuesday’s indictment as “quite significant”. He said the prosecutors opted for narrow charges in the case, but that’s not necessarily good news for the former president.

“This is a very cautious, conservative set of charges that will be exceedingly difficult for Mr Trump to defeat,” Super told Al Jazeera.

He added that the elections case is expected to move faster than the classified documents case, making it likely that the trial will be held before the Republican convention next July when the party will confirm its nominee.

‘They’re going for the king’

Coffee echoed Super’s remarks on the efficiency of Tuesday’s indictment, noting that prosecutors could have piled on more complex and controversial charges — including sedition — but decided to keep it simple.

He also underscored that the prosecution, led by Special Counsel Jack Smith, lists six co-conspirators in the indictment but does not charge them as Trump’s co-defendants. “They’re going for the king and no one else. And that’s a simplifying decision,” Coffee said.

Top Democrats have described the third indictment against Trump as the most serious one as well.

“This indictment is the most serious and most consequential thus far and will stand as a stark reminder to generations of Americans that no one, including a president of the United States, is above the law,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and his Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

Most of the indictment’s findings were previously outlined by a Congressional panel that investigated the Capitol attack in a series of public hearings last year.

Yet, Trump has since maintained — if not grown — his base of support amongst Republicans, emerging as the clear frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination.

Many leading Republicans, including some of Trump’s 2024 rivals, came out in defence of the former president this week, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Jason Whitehead, a political science professor at California State University, Long Beach, said Trump indeed appears to be solidifying his popularity amongst his steadfast supporters.

But he added that it remains to be seen how the election interference trial will affect “persuadables” — voters who have not made up their minds about which candidate to back.

Whitehead acknowledged there may be public “fatigue” towards Trump and other election-related news.

But, unlike the cases about classified documents or hush money payments, the 2020 election was something “people lived through”, he said. And he observed that the latest indictment was more likely to connect with the US public.

“This is the big one especially because of the way that Jack Smith and his prosecutors wrote the indictment,” Whitehead said.

“It’s a very kind of succinct indictment that is actually trying to speak directly to the American people about the harm to American democracy, rather than to get caught in unnecessary legalese.”

The indictment

The indictment accuses Trump of targeting a “bedrock function” of the US government with his push against the results of the 2020 vote.

“The purpose of the conspiracy was to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election by using knowingly false claims of election fraud to obstruct the federal government function by which those results are collected, counted and certified,” it read.

In the US election system, electors represent points that a presidential candidate earns after winning a state. In each state, the electors normally cast a ceremonial vote for the winning candidate after the election.

But the indictment accuses Trump of promoting false election-fraud claims and naming fake electors to stir confusion.

Prosecutors wrote that Trump pushed officials in several states to “ignore the popular vote; disenfranchise millions of voters; dismiss legitimate electors; and ultimately, cause the ascertainment of and voting by illegitimate electors” in his favour.

Super, the law professor, said Trump was trying to nullify the votes of people through the “fake electors” scheme, which targeted seven key battleground states.

“That’s really the same as if someone backs up a truck to the voting booth and runs away with ballots,” Super said.

Asked whether Trump could face jail time if convicted, Super said it would be difficult to speculate on sentencing given Trump’s status as a former president and current candidate.

“Let me put it this way: If you or I were convicted for this, we would go away for a very long time,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera