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Trump was just indicted for trying to steal the 2020 election

Your biggest questions about the federal criminal charges against Trump in the January 6 case, answered.

Donald Trump’s face.
Former president and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump prepares to deliver remarks at a Nevada Republican volunteer recruiting event on July 8, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Former President Donald Trump was indicted for an unprecedented third time on August 1, adding another set of serious federal charges to the mounting legal issues he faces.

Trump was indicted as part of the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation, led by special counsel Jack Smith, into the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. The indictment marks the second time Trump has faced federal charges, and he remains the only president to have been federally indicted.

Trump is charged with four counts: 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. Trump could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the obstruction-related charges and 10 years for the conspiracy against rights charge. Trump is expected to be arraigned in Washington, DC, federal court on Thursday.

The indictment is the product of a months-long investigation in which Smith’s team questioned several high-profile members of Trump’s circle, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former White House communications director Hope Hicks. It follows the House January 6 committee’s investigation last year, which concluded that Trump incited the insurrection and conspired to defraud the US government, referring him and other associates to the DOJ for prosecution.

“Since the attack on our capital, the Department of Justice has remained committed to ensuring accountability for those criminally responsible for what happened that day,” Smith said in a news conference Tuesday. “This case is brought consistent with that commitment and our investigation of other individuals continues.”

Trump seemed to know the indictment was coming. He posted August 1 on TruthSocial that Smith “will be putting out yet another Fake Indictment of your Favorite President, me,” and previously posted on the platform that he’d received what’s known as a target letter from Smith.

After the indictment was released, Trump claimed, despite Smith’s investigation being independent from the White House, that Biden was trying to hurt his strong standing in the 2024 polls. “This is nothing more than the latest corrupt chapter in the continued pathetic attempt by the Biden Crime Family and their weaponized Department of Justice to interfere with the 2024 Presidential Election, in which President Trump is the undisputed frontrunner, and leading by substantial margins,” the Trump campaign said in a statement reacting to the indictment Tuesday.

Here’s what you need to know about what happens next.

What are the charges against Trump?

Trump faces charges for both conspiracy and obstruction. Conspiracy, in general, refers to a plot involving at least two people (in this case, Trump and six unnamed “co-conspirators”) to do something illegal (in this case, trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election). Conspiracy of rights, the final charge, is an organized plot to deprive someone of a constitutional right; here, the right to vote. Obstruction generally refers to an illegal attempt to stop a legal process; in the indictment, that’s the certification of the 2020 electoral votes.

The indictment argues Trump and a group of allies that the document refers to as his “co-conspirators” knew that their claims that the 2020 election was stolen were false, but that they spread them anyway — and even launched a “criminal scheme” to support them.

The indictment delves into the first count at length. It centers on that “criminal scheme,” which it claims, involved a prolonged pressure and influence campaign that targeted state politicians in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona. When no politician would help him overturn the election, the indictment says Trump went on to use “Dishonesty, Fraud, and Deceit” to assemble a slate of unlawful Electoral College electors in seven states, and that he and his allies lied to many electors to get them to go along with the plan. Then, Trump tried to use the powers of the executive branch — both those given to the Department of Justice and the vice president — to stay in power. Finally, the indictment places the violence of January 6 at Trump’s feet.

The other three counts are addressed in brief. The second count accuses Trump of planning to stop the certification of the electoral vote; the third, of him actually stopping the vote, and the fourth, of conspiring with others to disenfranchise Americans.

“Each of these conspiracies—which built on the widespread mistrust [Trump] was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud— 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,” the indictment reads.

How strong is the case?

Ellen Podgor, a law professor who studies white-collar crime at Stetson University, said that the indictment was “extremely well-drafted and well-substantiated,” and though it’s hard to predict what a jury will do, “there is strong evidentiary support outlined here that matches the elements of the alleged crime.”

Fordham law professor Cheryl Bader said in a statement that Smith “does not appear to have the same ‘smoking gun’ admission from Trump” in the January 6 case that he has in the classified documents case, where the former president acknowledged in a recording that he was not supposed to still have some of the documents in his possession or show them to people without security clearances. But he still “lays out in meticulous detail numerous efforts by advisors and others to disabuse Trump of the notion that the election result was impacted by election fraud,” she said.

On the other hand, Jonathan Turley, a Fox News contributor and law professor at George Washington University, has argued that Trump’s statements about the election, while untrue, were protected speech for which he should not be charged. “If you take a red pen to all of the material presumptively protected by the First Amendment, you can reduce much of the indictment to haiku,” he tweeted.

Podgor noted that Smith’s team is likely to have evidence that is not included in the indictment, including evidence pertaining to Trump’s unidentified co-conspirators. Smith may give them the option to come forward now and reach a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. He could also grant them immunity; then they would no longer be able to claim a Fifth Amendment privilege that allows them to refuse to testify if they would likely incriminate themselves by doing so.

Alternatively, Smith could indict the unnamed individuals in a separate or later indictment or keep the status quo in which they remain unidentified and uncharged co-conspirators.

Will Trump be arrested and go to jail?

Trump is not expected to be jailed following his arraignment, following a pattern established by his previous arraignments in New York and Miami. Trump was previously fingerprinted in those cases but was not put in handcuffs and did not have his mugshot taken. There were cameras allowed in the courtroom in New York, but not in Miami. He was also allowed to return home following both arraignments.

Why is this indictment a big deal?

If you only pay attention to one of the three Trump indictments so far, make it this one.

Unlike his previous indictments in the New York and classified documents cases — which pertained to falsifying business records and national security concerns — the latest indictment has overt consequences on US democracy and the upcoming 2024 election.

The results of the latest case will legally define what a politician is able to do to reverse a defeat. If Trump faces no legal repercussions for his interference in the 2020 election, in both the federal case and a separate ongoing probe in Georgia, his allies could try to overturn the results in 2024 if he loses. The thing that would limit him is the fact many of the mechanisms Trump sought to use to overturn the results in 2020 no longer exist as a result of reforms at the state and a recent US Supreme Court decision.

More broadly, this latest case is about settling what exactly happened on January 6. Republicans have repeatedly attempted to rewrite the history of that day. A year after the event, the GOP took the official stance that January 6 was an exercise in “legitimate political discourse” and censured two then-Republican lawmakers — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — who had called the insurrection what it was. As a result, more than a quarter of Republicans and a significant share of Democrats said in a March Economist/YouGov poll that they approved of the January 6 rioters.

Few Republicans have been willing to argue that Trump’s actions on January 6 should disqualify him from being their party’s nominee as a matter of political survival. While criminal charges or even convictions won’t prevent him from running or becoming president, they may present an opportunity for some skeptics in the GOP to come forward — though they would risk the wrath of the MAGA base.

What does this mean for Trump’s 2024 campaign?

So far, Trump has simply brushed off his legal entanglements, and they appear to be helping him in the 2024 polls. He remains the frontrunner in the GOP primary, polling more than 30 percentage points on average ahead of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, notes that previous indictments were easy for GOP voters to dismiss, but it’s unclear whether this latest indictment will follow that trend.

Many legal analysts have said Trump’s first indictment in New York has weak underpinnings, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had previously boasted about how many times he had sued the Trump administration during his campaign. Together, those factors left many Republicans waving away that indictment as a “partisan witch hunt.”

The second, in the case concerning Trump’s retention of classified documents after he left office, was a “blockbuster legally,” Ayres said, but given Bragg’s indictment had come before it, was easy for Republicans to brush it off yet again.

It’s difficult to know exactly what will happen now that Trump has been indicted for a third time. But if Republicans’ reaction to the House January 6 committee’s investigation is any indication, it might do little to sway the base.

“It was an article of faith among Republican voters that they weren’t going to watch the January 6 hearings. They just determined ahead of time that it was a partisan witch hunt, even though the vast majority of the witnesses were Trump employees, Trump confidants, and Trump staff members,” Ayres said.

That means that when it comes to the primary, this latest indictment seems unlikely to have a major effect on voters. However, it remains to be seen whether these indictments will cause moderates and independents to turn away from the former president.

Trump has already lost once to President Joe Biden, but in head-to-head matchups over the last month, some polls have him winning by as much as 7 percentage points, while others have him losing by as much as 6 percentage points. Much could change before November 2024, but should Trump be his party’s nominee, those numbers suggest a tight race in which losing moderates and independents in states like Georgia or Pennsylvania could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Overall, even in the best-case scenario for the former president, in which the legal issues have zero effect on his support, the cases will take away valuable time and money he could be spending on his campaign.

How are Trump’s Republican rivals reacting?

Republicans seeking the 2024 nomination have trod lightly in using the investigations against Trump to attack him as unfit for another term.

Before news of the indictment broke, DeSantis said that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” against violence on January 6, but also told CNN, “I hope he doesn’t get charged.” After the indictment, DeSantis suggested Trump wouldn’t be able to have a fair trial in Washington, DC, calling the city’s juror pool “reflective of the swamp mentality.” In a statement, former Vice President Mike Pence noted that Americans are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but lamented Trump’s actions on January 6, and wrote, “Our country is more important than one man. Our constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”

All three indictments have presented a conundrum for those looking to displace Trump as the GOP frontrunner. Recognizing his continued grip on the Republican primary voters and the risk of alienating them, the candidates have largely refrained from criticizing Trump directly. But in so doing, they have also struggled to carve out distinct lanes and present a clear argument for why the party should dump Trump.

What happens after the indictment?

As with the cases against Trump in New York and Florida, the January 6 case could extend well into the 2024 campaign season — or even beyond the election.

Smith has sought a speedy trial in the classified documents case, which is currently scheduled for May 2024, and said in a news conference Tuesday that he also intends to do so in the January 6 case. (Trump, on the other hand, had pushed to delay the trial in the documents case later than the 2024 election to accommodate his campaign calendar.)

Kevin O’Brien, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said it’s unclear whether the January 6 case can feasibly be decided before the 2024 election. It is bigger in scope and therefore may take longer to resolve, but also carries significant public interest.

“The subject matter has had direct implications for our democratic process. And you can argue the voters should be exposed to that evidence and know [the jury verdict] in that case,” he said.

If Trump wins the 2024 election, then it “would be a brouhaha,” O’Brien said. Any unresolved federal charges would likely become moot under the longstanding DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But if he’s convicted before assuming office, that would create a constitutional question: whether he could later pardon himself.

Update, August 2, 2 pm ET: This story was originally published on August 1 and has been updated multiple times, most recently with expert assessments of the indictment.

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