11 minutes

What the new Trump indictment has already proven

On the first day of the year 2021, then-President Donald Trump reportedly called his Vice President Mike Pence to abuse him.

Trump was furious that Pence had opposed a lawsuit arguing that the vice president had the power to overturn the 2020 presidential election when Congress certified it on January 6, a degree of authority that Pence had (correctly) concluded he did not possess. When Pence explained his reasoning to Trump, as he had done previously on several other occasions, the president accused Pence of what he presumably saw as a grievous character flaw.

“You’re too honest,” Trump said, according to special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of Donald Trump.

This episode, one of the new details in that four-count indictment released Tuesday, serves to underscore the prosecution’s central argument: that Trump knowingly lied about the outcome of the 2020 election in service of a plot to defraud the American people of the right to choose their own leader. To make the case that Trump “defrauded the federal government” and “corruptly” interfered with Congress’s counting of the votes, Smith needs to show that Trump knew that his claims about the election and the law were in fact false. That Trump accuses Pence of being “too honest” is evidence of this corrupt intent.

To rebut this claim, Trump’s legal team is arguing that he truly believed the election was stolen. “I would like them to try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Donald Trump believed that these allegations were false,” Trump attorney John Lauro said in a Thursday evening interview on Fox News.

As a legal matter, this may well be their best defense against the fraud and interference charges. But as a political argument, it’s a disaster: It all but concedes Trump is unfit for the presidency in 2024.

Smith’s indictment lays out a mountain of evidence that Trump should have known the election was notstolen: Top official after top official told him so, as did key members of his inner circle and a number of courts who ruled on the issue. The legal arguments in favor of Trump’s actual scheme to overturn the election — the creation of fake electors and Pence’s assumption of near-unilateral power to pick the next president — were similarly panned.

To have access to all of that information, as Trump did at that time, and still publicly claim the things he did means one of two things: Either Trump was lying, as the prosecution alleges, or he is utterly incapable of understanding the world around him. Either explanation is damning.

And of course, it’s even worse than that. He didn’t just say absurd things, but he also actually acted on them.

Trump dreamed up a scheme to overturn the election that his own advisers, per the indictment, warned would lead to riots in the streets — which, in one chilling passage, one of his co-conspirators suggested would be met with military repression. When he inspired an actual riot on January 6, Trump did basically nothing — even saying supportive things about the rioters in private.

The combination of Trump’s awful judgment and willingness to take extreme actions based on his absurd beliefs makes him a uniquely dangerous person to hold any high office: a man who thinks that the vice president failed by being “too honest” in opposing what amounted to a kind of coup attempt.

Some of the evidence in the indictment is new. Much of it is old, revealed already in the extensive congressional inquiry into January 6. But put together in one place, in a legal document arguing that an ex-president of the United States should be jailed for the first time, hammers home the stakes of the 2024 election.

The last time Trump was president, our democracy barely survived. We might not be so lucky next time.

Donald Trump is a bad man

Smith’s indictment spends a lot of time establishing a pattern: Donald Trump is told by his own advisers that his wild claims about the 2020 election are false, but then he goes to repeat them in public anyway.

At the end of November, Trump met with the two top Republican legislators in Michigan — the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader — and claimed he lost because of fraud in Detroit. They told him that their oversight work proved this false and that he lost fair and square. Then-Attorney General Bill Barr told him the same thing in a December 1 meeting. On December 2, Trump publicly claimed that there had been a dump of over 100,000 illegitimate ballots from Detroit that swung the election against him.

On December 22, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows observed the ballot certification process in Georgia and told Trump that state election officials were “conducting themselves in an exemplary fashion.” The very next day, Trump tweeted that these same officials were “terrible people” covering up evidence of voter fraud.

In two meetings, on December 31 and January 3, the top two officials at the Justice Department told Trump that his claims about there being 205,000 more votes than voters in the state of Pennsylvania were false. On January 6, Trump tweeted the exact claim — right down to the 205,000 number — that he had just been told was false.

The indictment documents this pattern happening over and over again, with even some of his closest allies acknowledging that it was obvious the president was pushing ridiculous lies. In one of the most striking passages, Smith quotes “a Senior Campaign Advisor” — reported by CNN to be Trump confidante Jason Miller — admitting that their team couldn’t defend the arguments they were making (about Georgia specifically).

“When our research and campaign legal team can’t back up any of the claims made by our Elite Strike Force Legal team, you can see why we’re 0-32 on our cases. I’ll obviously hustle to help on all fronts, but it’s tough to own any of this when it’s all just conspiracy shit beamed down from the mothership,” the adviser wrote in a December 8 email.

Even Trump’s closest allies admitted that the claims made by the pro-coup faction, people like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell (who appear to be co-conspirators 1 and 3 in the indictment), were absurd. That they were untrustworthy was obvious, even based solely on their public statements. Powell, for example, suggested that electronic voting machines had been rigged by former Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez, who had died seven years prior to the 2020 election.

Rudy Giuliani speaks to the media at a news conference held in the back parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping on November 7, 2020, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Smith’s mountain of evidence, put together, points to one of two conclusions.

In the first scenario, Trump was (as Smith alleges) lying. He understood that what he was saying was false, and said it anyway as part of a desperate attempt to hold onto power through sheer force of fraudulent will. Were this true, Trump would be far worse than a bad person: he would be a man who knowingly derailed the peaceful transition of power in pursuit his own ego and power-hunger.

In the second scenario, Trump truly believed what he was saying and was “merely” displaying some of the worst judgment ever exercised by anyone in American politics. He chose to believe demonstrably nutty people like Powell over virtually every credible authority in the United States: his own Justice Department, his own political advisors, leading Republicans around the country, and repeated rulings against him in open court.

To make his fraud case in court, Smith needs to prove the first scenario. He appears to have a reasonable chance of doing so, with evidence like “you’re too honest” floating around in the indictment.

But for those of us in the voting public, who will very likely have to make a choice between Trump and Biden in November 2024, it matters a great deal less. Either scenario, willful lying or world-historical delusion, is disqualifying: they demonstrate that Trump lacks essential qualities that you want for anyone in a position of power, let alone a person in charge of the world’s most powerful country with unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Donald Trump is a bad man who did bad things

As a matter of law, Trump is entitled to lie about the 2020 election under the First Amendment. If that’s all that Smith was alleging he was doing, then there would be no case.

But that’s not what Smith is doing. After showing that Trump repeatedly lied, or at very least behaved like a completely unreasonable person, he goes on to show that these lies underpinned action: that is, that they were an integral part of a scheme to defraud the American public of their right to choose their own elected officials. It’s an allegation that underscores the stakes of Trump’s 2024 bid to return to office.

Trump and his allies gathered a group of people to pretend to be presidential electors in several key swing states Trump lost (and, oddly, blue New Mexico). The idea was that Trump and his allies would put these people forward as rivals to the actual electors who were going to vote for Biden to create a sense that the election was legally contested, even though it wasn’t.

That, Trump’s lawyers falsely claimed, would empower Vice President Mike Pence to either simply count the fake electors and declare Trump president on January 6 or else throw the election to Congress — where Republicans had the numbers to vote to keep Trump in power.

It’s important to underscore two things about this plot.

First, it was essentially fraudulent. Trump’s team asked these fake electors to sign a certificate in which they lied about being legally authorized electors, sometimes even lying about the point of the document.

“When the Defendant’s electors expressed concern about signing certificates representing themselves as legitimate electors, Co-Conspirator 1 [Rudy Giuliani, it seems] falsely assured them that the certificates would be used only if the Defendant succeeded in litigation,” Smith writes.

Second, Trump’s team was repeatedly warned that going forward with this plot would endanger the foundations of constitutional rule and even incite street violence. They didn’t care.

In one of the most jaw-dropping exchanges revealed by the indictment, Smith reports on a conversation on the topic between Co-Conspirator 4 — apparently Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Clark — and deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin. When Philbin warns Clark that their scheme would produce “riots in every major city in the United States,” Clark responds, “that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”

Think about that for a second. Clark, who Trump was trying at the time to make acting attorney general, was proposing to hold onto power through unlawful means — and, when this scheme led to civil unrest, to call in the US military to repress the citizenry. That would, in no uncertain terms, amount to a violent coup against the constitutional order (nitpicky political scientists would call it a “self-coup,” an attempt by an elected incumbent to use force to stay in power).

This, thankfully, did not happen — largely because Trump’s attempted legal coup failed when Pence refused to play ball. But there was violence nonetheless, violence by Trump’s supporters storming the US Capitol to disrupt the election certification process and vowing to “hang Mike Pence” for failing to go along with the coup plot.

When then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pleaded with Trump to try and calm the situation, Trump told him (per the indictment’s paraphrase) that these rioters were “more upset about the election than the Minority Leader was.”

Donald Trump’s lies, in short, were not merely a PR campaign to protect himself. They were part of a fraudulent campaign to steal the election that directly caused one of the gravest political crises in the history of American democracy, the first-ever violent transition of power in the country’s history.

This, to me, illustrates the most important thing at stake in the 2024 election.

We don’t know exactly what Trump would do if given power again the next time around (though there are some chilling warnings). But we know what he did last time — and, perhaps more importantly, that these actions are rooted in essential facts about his character.

Trump is either an extraordinarily selfish liar or profoundly deluded — in my estimation, probably both. Whether or not he is ultimately convicted, the indictment lays out these essential facets of his personality: obvious from his presidency, but striking when put down in a legal document alleging that these character defects led him to commit crimes.

If our country entrusts Trump with power in 2024, this man will rule all of us once again.

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