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5 things to know about the latest charges against Donald Trump

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania
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Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania

Updated August 2, 2023 at 12:38 PM ET

Former President Donald Trump was indicted Tuesday on charges he participated in a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results — an effort that reached a bloody crescendo as his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Following an investigation by special counsel Jack Smith, a grand jury voted to charge Trump with conspiracy to defraud the United States, witness tampering and conspiracy against the rights of citizens, and obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding.

Trump, who has been summoned to appear in court on Thursday, is still the leading candidate in the Republican primary race. If he pleads not guilty (as he has with the other indictments), we could be hearing about his trial as he makes his case for the White House.

Here are five key points to help get you up to speed.

1. This is the third criminal indictment for Trump, but it's more than just another legal woe

The former president now faces legal peril in three criminal cases — following March's indictment on 34 counts of falsifying business records and June's indictment on 37 counts of mishandling classified documents. Trump has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

A prosecutor in Fulton County, Ga., is leading a separate investigation into Trump's alleged efforts to pressure state election officials there. And Trump is also fighting two civil lawsuits, including a federal jury finding that left him liable for battery and defamation.

But this latest indictment stands apart from Trump's other legal challenges.

The Department of Justice's investigation into Jan. 6, 2021, is among the most sprawling and complex in U.S. history — it gets at the heart of the alleged effort to overturn legitimate election results and obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.

"The attack on our nation's Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy," said the special counsel in a short statement before reporters. "As described in the indictment, it was fueled by lies. Lies by the defendant, targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government."

2. The latest charges represent significant legal peril

The indictment charges Trump with four serious federal criminal offenses:

  • Conspiracy to defraud the United States applies to Trump's repeated and widespread efforts to spread false claims about the November 2020 election while knowing they were not true and for allegedly attempting to illegally discount legitimate votes all with the goal of overturning the 2020 election, prosecutors claim in the indictment.
  • Conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding was brought due to the alleged organized planning of Trump and his allies to disrupt the electoral vote's certification in January 2021.
  • Obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding is tied to Trump and his co-conspirators' actual efforts after the November 2020 election until Jan. 7, 2021, to block the official certification proceeding in Congress.
  • Conspiracy against rights is a Civil War-era law that applies to Trump and his co-conspirators' alleged attempts to "oppress, threaten and intimidate" people in their right to vote in an election.
  • University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias described the overall case against Trump as "damning" and representing real "legal jeopardy."

    3. The indictment lists six anonymous co-conspirators

    Trump is the only person who is charged and he is the only defendant in this latest indictment. But the court document scatters some clues for the future in terms of who else might potentially face charges.

    Six people are labeled as co-conspirators in the indictment. They are given individual numbers and potentially identifying traits but they are not identified by name in the court document.

    Some are attorneys who helped promote bogus election fraud claims. Co-conspirator 3 is described as an attorney who privately acknowledged that the unfounded election fraud claims were "crazy." Another, co-conspirator 4, was a Justice Department official who worked on civil matters and "attempted to use the Justice Department to open sham election crime investigations and influence state legislatures."

    And their descriptions line up with those of people who could be of interest to investigators, such as former Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and Sidney Powell and former DOJ attorney Jeffrey Clark.

    4. Trump is calling this indictment "fake." And, yes, he's still leading the polls

    Even before the indictment was unsealed, Trump and his allies were actively working to control the narrative, calling this a sham indictment and accusing the Biden administration of trying to interfere with the 2024 election.

    On Truth Social, Trump said a "Fake Indictment" was evidence of "prosecutorial misconduct." His campaign issued a formal statement (and, later, a fundraising pitch) calling it "election interference." And his Republican allies in Congress — plus even some of his GOP primary foes — cast the indictment as political persecution at the hands of the Biden administration.

    But as NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez pointed out in an interview with All Things Considered, the attacks from Trump and his supporters are focusing on the process — not so much the substance.

    "They claim these are politically motivated charges. They attack the special counsel. But they don't necessarily refute specific allegations," Ordoñez said. "They don't argue Trump never incited those followers who attacked the Capitol. They never say that Trump didn't seek a group of fake electors."

    That's because after two impeachments, three indictments and quite a few scandals in between, Trump has conditioned his supporters to see each allegation against him as a reason to rally around him.

    And it works. In March, several weeks before the first indictment, Trump had just 43% of the vote in Republican polling, according to a RealClearPolitics average. But a day after he was charged in a hush-money scheme to an adult film actress, his numbers had jumped to 50%.

    Two months later, he was indicted for mishandling classified documents. His polling average jumped again.

    As of Monday, ahead of the news of the latest indictment, Trump was still in the lead among Republican presidential candidates.

    5. Charges for 2020 election interference are starting to pile up

    The federal indictment of Trump over efforts to overturn the 2020 election came soon after similar election interference charges were made public against a Trump ally in Michigan.

    Matthew DePerno — the most recent Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general, who worked with Trump's team to try to contest his 2020 loss in the state — was arraigned Tuesday on state charges for an alleged effort to unlawfully gain access to voting machines.

    DePerno has been charged with undue possession of a voting machine, willfully damaging a voting machine and conspiracy, according to the special prosecutor investigating the case.

    Investigations into election interference are ongoing elsewhere, as well. Arizona's Democratic attorney general is investigating the 2020 fake electors there, and a Georgia prosecutor is set to soon announce her long-awaited charging decisions in an investigation into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election there.

    And all of these investigations are happening separately from the Justice Department's sprawling and complex investigation into the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

    On that day, Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, injuring scores of law enforcement officers, forcing a panicked evacuation of the nation's political leaders and threatening the peaceful transfer of power after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

    To date, the DOJ has charged more than 1,000 people in what's become the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

    That list now includes Trump.

    NPR's Ben Swasey and Carrie Johnson contributed reporting.

    This reporting originally appeared in our digital live coverage.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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    Emily Olson
    Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
    Ximena Bustillo
    Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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