The former president's indictment may cause a fiery backlash
Special counsel Jack Smith has unloaded another set of legal charges against former president Donald Trump. While earlier efforts focused on legal issues related to the handling of classified documents after Trump left the Oval Office, this latest indictment instead revolves around his months-long campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The former president is accused of participating in three serious plots: “conspiracy to defraud the United States by using dishonesty, fraud, and deceit” to interfere with the counting of the results of a presidential election; conspiracy to disrupt the congressional proceedings of 6th January 2021 (when the electoral votes are counted); and a “conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted”.
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At the core of this indictment is a catalogue of Trump’s various efforts to convince state officials to intervene in the counting of votes for president in the months after election day in November 2020. It also focuses on the campaign to convince then-Vice President Mike Pence to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes on 6th January. Central to Smith’s indictment is the assertion that Trump supposedly did not truly believe his own claims about vote fraud.
The serious legal consequences of a conviction on these charges have set press coverage to boil. For instance, Megyn Kelly agreed that there was a significant possibility that Trump could be convicted on this indictment, as well as potentially sentenced to imprisonment prior to the November 2024 presidential election.
Smith’s indictment may also feed into the legal-political escalatory spiral of contemporary American politics. Indeed the charges on Trump for fraud and obstruction of federal proceedings rely upon heavily contested legal assumptions. More, the Special Counsel has pushed the legal envelope in the past: his prosecution of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was eventually unanimously reversed by the Supreme Court.
From the moment he descended the golden escalator in the summer of 2015, Trump conjured a politics of crisis, a state of play his fiercest opponents have themselves often invoked. In justifying his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the former president often cited the efforts of his enemies to delegitimise the results of the 2016 vote. Now Trump’s critics use his 2020 schemes as a justification for a novel legal campaign against prominent political opponents of the sitting president.
However, emergency politics have a cost when extended over the long term. Ferocious partisan combat places increased pressures on each of the branches of government, which in turn can threaten the perception of their legitimacy. Consider this hypothetical: if Trump were to become the Republican nominee and be convicted on these charges before the election, he would almost certainly appeal.
Under those circumstances, it would be up to the courts to determine whether the main challenger to the sitting president should be imprisoned during an election on charges brought by appointees of said president. Whatever decision the courts make could ignite a fiery backlash, and the result of any eventual appeal would eventually go up to the Supreme Court. Trump’s legal problems involve not only the presidency, but also the judicial branch.
Of course, this hypothetical is not set in stone. Trump may not be the Republican nominee. The trial may not occur before the election. The jury may deadlock or find him not guilty. But it reveals how Trump’s many controversies can spill over, altering the political system as a whole.