(The Hill) – Former President Trump was indicted for a third time Tuesday — on this occasion, for his attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election.
News of the indictment broke soon after 5 p.m. following a meeting of the Washington grand jury that has been weighing the case.
In a brief on-camera appearance, Special Counsel Jack Smith accused Trump of a mendacious push aimed at “obstructing a bedrock function of the US government — the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.”
Trump had previously predicted the indictment — and he has repeatedly blasted Smith.
The case now joins two earlier indictments. One pertains to alleged falsification of business records in New York. A second centers on sensitive documents kept at Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s presidency ended.
Here are the main takeaways from Tuesday’s indictment.
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The charges are grave
Trump faces four charges.
They are: conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding; and conspiracy against rights.
The two alleged offenses regarding obstructing an official proceeding bear the harshest penalty. The maximum sentence for each offense is 20 years in prison.
Conspiracy against rights carries a maximum sentences of 10 years, while the fourth charge carries a maximum 5-year sentence.
Prosecutors used the indictment in part to detail the component parts of the alleged plot.
They point to pressure on state officials to change the lawful outcome of the election; an effort to push illegitimate pro-Trump slates of electors; an effort to use the Department of Justice to “conduct sham election-crime investigations”; attempts to push then-Vice President Pence to help thwart certification of the legitimate results; and actions intended to convince members of Congress to further delay the certification right after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.
Trump denies all wrongdoing.
But the gravity of the matter is self-evident. It is also the first time that he has faced criminal sanction for his actions on and around Jan. 6 — one of the darkest days in American history.
Smith is pressing hard to prove Trump knowingly lied
One fault-line in the case is already clear.
Trump’s allies will claim that he legitimately believed the election was fraudulent and therefore, in his mind, the efforts to overturn it were intended to right a wrong.
One Trump lawyer, John Lauro, told Fox News on Tuesday that he would like to see how prosecutors could “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Donald Trump believed his claims that the election was fraudulent were false.
Prosecutors seek to make just such a case in the indictment.
They contend that 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.”
Prosecutors include in that list Pence, “the senior leaders of the Justice Department,” senior White House attorneys and senior members of Trump’s 2020 election campaign team, among many others.
The case is enlivened by some vivid details, including one senior campaign advisor writing in a frustrated internal email about what prosecutors terms a “persistent false claim” regarding the election count in the Atlanta area.
“When our research and campaign legal team can’t back up any of the claims made by our Elite Strike Force Legal Team, you can see why we’re 0-32 on our cases,” the advisor wrote.
Another instance is an account of Trump telling Pence in late December 2020 that the Department of Justice was finding “major infractions” in how the election had been conducted — something that Trump should have known was untrue.
Whether such points capsize Trump’s defense is a different matter.
The debate over which he was knowingly lying, or believing one set of advisors over another, will be central to any eventual trial.
The Trump response has ignited its own controversy
Trump had taken to Truth Social just before the indictment was made public, contending that
“Deranged Jack Smith” was pushing the grand jury to approve charges now because the special counsel wanted to “interfere” with the 2024 election.
“Prosecutorial misconduct!” Trump claimed.
Those accusations are par for the course from the former president.
More controversial was a statement put out by his campaign, which Trump duly posted on Truth Social.
The statement contended that the legal probes the former president faces were “reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.”
The comparison sparked instant controversy.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League wrote in a social media post that any attempt to draw such a parallel was “shameful.”
Greenblatt also said that any suggestion of a parallel was “factually incorrect, completely inappropriate and flat out offensive.”
Trump’s GOP rivals split on response
Trump holds a commanding lead in the Republican presidential primary, and all of his rivals have struggled for traction against him.
The new indictment presents them with a political dilemma.
There is an imperative to separate themselves from Trump if they’re to have any real chance of beating him. But there are also dangers in alienating a Republican electorate that has rallied around the former president in the wake of his two previous indictments.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a distant second to Trump in almost every poll, sought to thread that needle by focusing on a push to move the trial out of Washington.
DeSantis contended that it would be “unfair” for Trump “to have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality.”
But DeSantis’s statement also contained a notable hedge — he claimed not have to have read the indictment.
Pence put a much clearer line of demarcation between himself and Trump.
The former vice president said the indictment offered a “reminder” that “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States.”
Others leaned to further extremes. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy announced he would pardon Trump if he became president, whereas former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Trump had “brought shame to his presidency.”
Some contenders responded to the indictment, at least in the immediate aftermath, with conspicuous silence — a reflection, perhaps, of the vexing dynamics of the GOP primary.
The case is weighty, but its impact on the GOP primary could be light
There is no evidence at all that Trump’s previous two indictments have hurt him among Republican voters — and there is not much reason to think this will be any different.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday, only 17 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters thought Trump had committed “serious crimes” in any of the matters that have been probed by investigators.
In an Economist/YouGov poll released last week, 70 percent of Republicans asserted, incorrectly, that Biden’s 2020 victory was not legitimate.
The general public is a different matter, of course. In the Economist poll, two-thirds of all adults acknowledged Biden’s victory was legitimate, including 68 percent of independents. And the same poll showed the public overall believing, by a modest 43 percent-33 percent plurality that Trump had broken the law around Jan. 6.
Still, when it comes to the GOP field, there’s a stark bottom line: Trump is as strong a favorite on Wednesday morning as he was 24 hours before.