Former US President Donald Trump, currently the leading candidate for the Republican Party's 2024 nomination, is scheduled to appear before a federal district court on Thursday (August 3). Six unnamed co-conspirators were also included in the indictment, one of whom is believed to be Rudy Giuliani, who served on Trump’s legal team.
Earlier, Trump was indicted on four counts by a federal grand jury for plotting to overturn his 2020 election defeat, the third time this year the former US president has been criminally charged as he seeks to retake the White House in 2024.
The 45-page indictment was filed by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith after the grand jury heard months of testimony from some of Trump's closest associates of how Trump tried to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who became the US President in January 2021.
Trump, 77, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, witness tampering, conspiracy against the rights of citizens, and obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding.
These charges relate to Trump's actions over a period of more than two months from soon after election day (November 3) until the day he left the White House on 20 January 20.
The plot to overturn the 2020 election culminated in an unprecedented physical assault by Trump's supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, as Congress met to certify Biden's victory.
"Despite having lost, the defendant was determined to remain in power. So for more than two months following election day on November 3, 2020, the defendant spread lies that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that he had actually won. These claims were false, and the defendant knew that they were false,” the indictment reads.
Trump lawyer hints at a First Amendment defense
Notably, Trump’s legal team is characterizing his indictment in the special counsel’s 2020 election interference investigation as an attack on the former president’s right to free speech. But the case is not merely about Trump’s lies but also about the efforts he took to subvert the election, prosecutors say.
The early contours of a potential legal and political defense began to emerge in the hours after the charges were unsealed, with defense lawyer John Lauro accusing the Justice Department of having “criminalized” the First Amendment and asserting that his client had relied on the advice of attorneys around him in 2020. He also indicated he would look to slow the case down despite prosecutors’ pledge of a speedy trial.
But experts say there’s little legal merit to Trump’s First Amendment claims, particularly given the breadth of steps taken by Trump and his allies that prosecutors say transformed mere speech into action in a failed bid to undo the election. Those efforts, prosecutors wrote in the indictment, amounted to a disruption of a “bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.”
“If all that this was about was lies or the alleged lies of President Trump, then he’d have a pretty good legal defense based on the First Amendment,” said Floyd Abrams, a longtime First Amendment attorney. “But the theory of the indictment is that the speech of the president and the falsehoods of the president were part of a general effort to steal the election.”
Lauro said Tuesday night in an interview with a private channel that the indictment is an attack on “free speech and political advocacy.”
“And there’s nothing that’s more protected under the First Amendment than political speech,” he said.
The First Amendment does indeed give wide berth for all manner of speech, and it’s well established that lying to the public isn’t itself a crime. Special counsel Jack Smith and his team of prosecutors seemed to have anticipated the First Amendment line of defense, conceding head-on in their indictment that Trump had the right to falsely claim that fraud had cost him the election and to legally challenge the results.
(With AP inputs)