The most astonishing aspect of former President Donald Trump’s fourth criminal indictment is not the scale of an alleged multi-layered conspiracy to steal Georgia’s electoral votes in 2020 from their rightful winner.
It is that Trump – the accused kingpin of the scheme to overturn Joe Biden’s victory, who was charged on Monday along with 18 others – could in 17 months be raising his right hand as the 47th president and swearing to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution he was accused of plotting to shred.
The grave political crisis created by Trump’s aberrant presidency and subsequent efforts to hold him to account deepened significantly just before midnight with the unsealing of yet another indictment against him – this one from a grand jury in the critical swing state of Georgia. The charges in this state case – which bring to 91 the total number of criminal charges he’s facing across four separate cases – intensified an already epochal collision between Trump’s now extreme legal quagmire and the 2024 election in which he is the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
The 98-page indictment includes 41 counts that chart in stunning detail an alleged conspiracy to pressure local officials, make false statements about electoral fraud to state legislatures, harrass election workers, and solicit Justice Department officials and then-Vice President Mike Pence. It also alleges an attempt to unlawfully breach election equipment in Georgia and elsewhere and includes a list of actions by Trump and associates it says were all attempts to advance the conspiracy.
“Trump and the other defendants charged in this Indictment refused to accept that Trump lost, and they knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump,” the indictment said.
It is surreal. But Trump has now made indictments of a former president – which were unprecedented just months ago – seem routine. In addition to the Georgia case, he has been charged by special counsel Jack Smith in two separate federal cases related to the mishandling of classified documents and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The ex-president also faces a March trial in Manhattan in a case arising from a hush money payment to an adult film actress in 2016. Trump has pleaded not guilty in these three cases and is certain to do the same in Georgia. He is likely to claim that his assault on the integrity of the Peach State’s election was merely an exercise of his right to free speech.
Far from retreating from his bid to return to power, the ex-president appears to see reclaiming the presidency – and its unique executive powers – as his best hope of forestalling the tsunami of legal cases that now confront him and any convictions that may result, before or after the election in November 2024. But the case in Georgia is highly significant since the realities of the US federal system mean that Trump, even if he recaptured the White House, would struggle to shut down a state investigation and criminal trial and could not engineer his own pardon.
The new indictment – which requires Trump and his co-defendants, including former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to surrender to Georgia authorities by noon on Friday, August 25 – compounds an already staggering array of charges now facing the former president, which do not only cloud his already controversial legacy but could eventually threaten his liberty if he were convicted. Any other political figure would have folded their careers long ago under the shadow of such scandal. And it’s hard to recall any defendant facing such a scale of criminal peril.
But an increasingly furious Trump is vowing to fight on, with the same kind of inflammatory rhetoric that helped lead to the January 6, 2021, mob attack on the US Capitol and that raises the possibility that the next election will be even more poisonous than the last.
Trump billed the indictment secured by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, an elected Democrat, as election interference – the crime against democracy with which he has been repeatedly accused.
“These activities by Democrat leaders constitute a grave threat to American democracy and are direct attempts to deprive the American people of their rightful choice to cast their vote for President,” the Trump campaign said in a statement. “Call it election interference or election manipulation—it is a dangerous effort by the ruling class to suppress the choice of the people. It is un-American and wrong,” the statement said.
Those comments moved America to the edge of a political precipice as it faces a national reckoning over Trump’s false claims of fraud in 2020 and wrecking ball assault on democracy. His determination to portray himself as a victim of a weaponized government and to use his campaign as an arm of his defense means that a contentious and even dangerous period may lie ahead. It may be in the country’s long-term interests to prosecute an unprecedented attempt to destroy the principle of government for the people by the people. But Trump’s scorched earth response – and his supporters’ already deep distrust of law enforcement institutions holding him to account – means the price for defending democracy will be steep. Whatever verdicts juries and voters eventually deliver on Trump, a tragic national estrangement will deepen.
Taken together with the federal indictment of Trump on election subversion charges, the charges in Georgia dwarf any modern American political scandal, including the Watergate drama that felled President Richard Nixon, the affair with a White House intern that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton or even the attempt by Trump to coerce Ukraine into investigating Biden that caused the first of his two impeachments.
The detailed catalog of attempts to overturn democracy in Georgia will also supercharge an already febrile atmosphere in the state that has become a battleground critical to the control of the White House and the Senate.
‘Much bigger than Watergate’: John Dean weighs in on Georgia indictment
Indictments represent the best presentation of the evidence by the prosecution. The arguments therein have not yet been tested in court or cross-examined by Trump’s attorneys and typically do not include exculpatory evidence that could mitigate the charges. And Trump, like any other citizen, enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Yet millions of Americans have already heard the recording of Trump telling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on a telephone call that all that was needed was for the Republican official to find 11,780 votes to overturn Biden’s win in the state.
There was much talk after Trump’s failure to cling to power – after a string of dismissed lawsuits and the Capitol insurrection – of how the US democratic system had endured. Democracy didn’t break in 2020 because of the courage of many public officials, many of them Republicans in states like Georgia and Arizona, as well as Pence. But unelected citizens also played a role – like Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who have said the extreme pressure Trump inflicted on them ruined their lives. Their supporters will see vindication that many months later, a grand jury made up of other regular Georgians handed up an indictment against the ex-president.
The indictment will strike millions of Americans as an appropriate response to one of the most flagrant assaults on democracy in the country’s history. But millions more, including those in Trump’s super loyal base, are certain to dismiss it.
There is a deep and sincere belief among many Republicans that the multiple indictments against Trump are proof of his claims that the US government has been weaponized to persecute him by Democrats who fear his return to the White House. The country has never seen federal prosecutions of a potential major party nominee effectively under the auspices of the administration of his possible general election opponent.
The belief among many conservatives that the election system is corrupt is deep-seated among many Trump supporters. After all, he’s been curating it for years. He first falsely claimed the electoral system was tainted by fraud in 2016, when he beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College but trailed in the popular vote.
Many Republicans also view the indictments against Trump through the prism of what they seen as unjustified and unproven allegations of collusion in the Russia investigation. They view the recently collapsed plea deal for the president’s son, Hunter Biden, regarding misdemanor tax offenses and a federal gun charge as an example of a two-tiered justice system, even though they’ve provided no evidence of wrongdoing by the president.
Trump’s claims that he is happy to be indicted in order to protect his followers are popular among grassroots conservatives. So a fourth Trump indictment is unlikely to be any more ruinous to his political career than the previous three – at least, in the Republican primary, where rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have so far failed to take advantage of Trump’s political liabilities without alienating vast numbers of his supporters.
The swift reaction of top Republicans in the House Monday particularly underscored his strength in the party. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, for instance, slammed “another rogue Far Left radical District Attorney weaponizing their office to target Joe Biden’s top political opponent President Trump.” The New York congresswoman added: “President Trump will defeat these bogus charges and win back the White House in 2024.”
Still, the indictment could further harm Trump among swing-state and crucial suburban and moderate voters. The spectacle of a former president and possible Republican nominee spending much of the next year on trial is also an untested proposition. Marc Short, who served as chief of staff for Pence, said that no one could predict the political impact of Trump’s stunning legal jeopardy.
“There is a difference between indictments and actually sitting there in a courtroom in a trial and how that impacts voters,” Short told CNN’s Jake Tapper Monday.