Former President Donald Trump was indicted Tuesday on federal charges stemming from his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, as Justice Department prosecutors charged him with four federal crimes including conspiracy to defraud, obstruction and conspiracy of rights—which all could carry prison time if he’s convicted.
Trump was charged with four felony counts: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. (18 U.S. Code § 371), conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding (18 U.S. Code § 1512), obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding (18 U.S. Code § 1512) and conspiracy against rights (18 U.S. Code § 241).
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States: 18 U.S. Code § 371 makes it a crime for two or more people to “conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States” or any federal agency, and for one of them to perform some action that would affect the object of the conspiracy, which carries a fine or maximum prison sentence of five years if convicted.
The DOJ charged Trump with conspiracy to defraud based on his broad plan to overturn the election results, alleging the former president “[used] dishonesty, fraud, and deceit to impair, obstruct, and defeat the lawful federal government function by which the results of the presidential election are collected, counted, and certified by the federal government.”
Obstruction of an Official Proceeding: 18 U.S. Code § 1512 criminalizes “obstruct[ing], influenc[ing], or imped[ing] any official proceeding” or attempting to do so, which is punishable by a fine or up to 20 years in prison, and conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding under § 1512 carries the same potential punishment.
Those charges were brought against Trump based on his alleged attempts to block Congress from certifying the electoral count, and him successfully “obstruct[ing] and imped[ing] an official proceeding” when the vote count was postponed by the January 6 attack on the Capitol building.
Conspiracy Against Rights: 18 U.S. Code § 241 criminalizes when two or more people “conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate” any Americans “in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege” they’re afforded under the Constitution or federal law, or conspire to oppress them because they exercised that right, and is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison, assuming the crime doesn’t result in death or bodily injury.
The law, though initially enacted in the 19th century to punish members of the Ku Klux Klan, has more recently been used to prosecute election crimes, and the indictment alleges that by trying to overturn the election results, Trump conspired “to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate” Americans in exercising their right to vote.
What To Watch For
Trump has been ordered to appear in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, where he’s likely to plead not guilty to the charges against him. It’s still unclear when the trial against him will take place, though special counsel Jack Smith said Tuesday his office would “seek a speedy trial.” Trump already has two trials scheduled for next year in the other indictments that have been brought against him—in March and May—though Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg has suggested the March trial date in Trump’s state indictment could be moved.
Trump has strongly opposed the DOJ’s investigation into January 6 and the aftermath of the 2020 election, and has denied any wrongdoing. In his statement responding to the indictment, the ex-president slammed the probe as an “un-American witch hunt” and “disgraceful and unprecedented political targeting” and compared his plight to Nazi Germany, which the Anti-Defamation League criticized as “factually incorrect, completely inappropriate and flat out offensive.”
What We Don’t Know
If anyone else will be charged in the DOJ’s probe. There are so far no reports of other key Trump allies receiving target letters, but the indictment names six co-conspirators who allegedly helped Trump in his efforts to overturn the election. Based on identifying clues in the indictments, those co-conspirators are believed to include attorneys Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Sidney Powell and Jeffrey Clark. Smith said Tuesday that the DOJ is continuing to investigate other individuals in the case.
The DOJ’s indictment could be one of two Trump faces this summer for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, and her office are also investigating whether Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s election violated state law, particularly Trump’s phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump asked the secretary to “find” enough votes to flip the election. A grand jury has been sworn in to hear evidence in that probe and charges are expected by the end of August, with Willis saying over the weekend her office is “ready to go.”
Trump and his allies waged a major multi-state effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which included an almost entirely unsuccessful legal campaign, a “fake electors” scheme to submit false slates of electors to Congress and an effort to block Congress’ certification of the votes that ultimately led to the January 6 riot at the Capitol building. The DOJ has been investigating the January 6 riot since soon after the incident occurred, and reports emerged last summer that investigators appeared to be zeroing in on Trump’s post-election actions as part of the criminal probe. The indictment alleges that Trump “spread lies” and sowed “widespread mistrust” about the 2020 election being fraudulent despite knowing his claims were false in order to stay in power. The DOJ accuses Trump and his co-conspirators of taking multiple unlawful actions as part of the effort, arguing his actions “targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.”