WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump was indicted Aug. 1 by special counsel Jack Smith over his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. That indictment sends the U.S. into “uncharted territory,” a Catholic presidential historian told OSV News.
In a statement from the Justice Department, Smith told reporters, “Today an indictment was unsealed charging Donald J. Trump with conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to disenfranchise voters and conspiring and attempting to obstruct an official proceeding.”
“My office will seek a speedy trial so that our evidence can be tested in court and judged by a jury of citizens,” Smith said. “In the meantime, I must emphasize that the indictment is only an allegation and the defendant must be presumed innocent till proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, in a court of law.”
Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, who critically observes the modern American presidency, told OSV News that “as indictments and court cases against former President Trump increase, he becomes stronger with his supporters.”
“He portrays himself as the victim of politically driven investigations to prevent him from returning to the White House after the 2024 election,” Schmuhl said. “He’s able to point to the mounting legal charges as his evidence that partisan prosecutors are seeking to stop him. But when you look beyond his base of devoted followers — a third or so of Americans — other citizens sincerely wonder whether a figure facing so many days in court over the next months can conduct a legitimate campaign for the presidency, let alone win and occupy the office.”
The United States, he said, “is entering new, uncharted territory, and nobody can predict where we’re going.”
The indictment states that Trump was “determined to remain in power,” and he and his conspirators “made knowingly false claims that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the 2020 presidential election.”
Trump’s unfounded claims that he won the election, the indictment said, were “false, and the Defendant knew they were false.”
“But the Defendant repeated and widely disseminated them anyway — to make his knowingly false claims appear legitimate, to create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and to erode public faith in the administration of the election,” the document said.
The indictment further states that “people who were best positioned to know the facts” — including Vice President Mike Pence — told him he was not the winner of the election.
The document alleges that Trump “berated” Pence for refusing to try and reject the results of the Electoral College unilaterally — something constitutional experts have said he lacked the authority to do. Trump allegedly told Pence he was “too honest.”
Trump has not backed down from his baseless claims of systemic election fraud, and he has claimed his legal woes are a political “witch hunt.”
Trump wrote in a post on his social media website Truth Social, “Why didn’t they do this 2.5 years ago? Why did they wait so long? Because they wanted to put it right in the middle of my campaign. Prosecutorial Misconduct!”
Trump has been previously indicted on federal charges concerning his alleged mishandling of classified documents, and state charges in New York over his alleged role in paying hush money to an adult film actress in the closing days of the 2016 campaign. Officials in Georgia also are scrutinizing Trump’s attempts to overturn that state’s election results.
James Patterson, chair of the politics department at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, told OSV News that “with so many cases and so many details, voters will likely struggle to follow what is happening, but Trump can offer a single message that the system is rigged against him.”
“Such a message is easy to understand,” Patterson said, arguing Trump can create contrast with a legal case concerning President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who is facing misdemeanor charges related to failure to pay some federal income taxes. A plea deal for the younger Biden fell through in July, when a judge rejected it, leaving the case ongoing.
“Trump’s argument almost writes itself,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the “coverage of these cases keeps Trump in the news and his Republican 2024 campaign rivals out, giving Trump earned media on which he can fundraise to build up his campaign and legal war chests.”
“In the end, he might lose some or all of these cases, but the short term impact is a net win for Trump,” he said.
John White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told OSV News that Trump’s latest indictment marks “a historic and sad day for America” as his actions in the waning days of his administration risked the nation’s tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.
“For more than 200 years, presidents have accepted election outcomes and graciously conceded to the winners, even when those elections have been contested,” White said. “Ever since the highly contested election of 1800, when President John Adams and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, fought a bitterly contested election, Adams, a Federalist, admitted defeat and Jefferson, a leader of the Democratic party, took the oath of office. The peaceful transfer of power became an extra-constitutional right that was observed until Jan. 6, 2021 — a date that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, said ‘will live in infamy.'”
White said that “while we don’t know the outcome of the trial, history will remember and rank the attempted insurrection led by Donald J. Trump as a stain on the country and its Constitution.”
Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.