The third indictment of the former president is the first to get to the heart of the matter: Can a sitting leader of the country spread lies to hold onto power even after voters reject him?
Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent, has covered the last five presidents and reported from Washington.
In the long annals of the republic, the White House has seen its share of perfidy and scandal, presidents who cheated on their wives and cheated the taxpayers, who abused their power and abused the public trust.
But not since the framers emerged from Independence Hall on that clear, cool day in Philadelphia 236 years ago has any president who was voted out of office been accused of plotting to hold onto power in an elaborate scheme of deception and intimidation that would lead to violence in the halls of Congress.
What makes the indictment against Donald J. Trump on Tuesday so breathtaking is not that it is the first time a president has been charged with a crime or even the second. Mr. Trump already holds those records. But as serious as hush money and classified documents may be, this third indictment in four months gets to the heart of the matter, the issue that will define the future of American democracy.
At the core of the United States of America v. Donald J. Trump is no less than the viability of the system constructed during that summer in Philadelphia. Can a sitting president spread lies about an election and try to employ the authority of the government to overturn the will of the voters without consequence? The question would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, but the Trump case raises the kind of specter more familiar in countries with histories of coups and juntas and dictators.
In effect, Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the case, charged Mr. Trump with one of the most sensational frauds in the history of the United States, one “fueled by lies” and animated by the basest of motives, the thirst for power. In a 45-page, four-count indictment, Mr. Smith dispensed with the notion that Mr. Trump believed his claims of election fraud. “The defendant knew that they were false,” it said, and made them anyway to “create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger and erode public faith in the administration of the election.”
The elements of the alleged conspiracy laid out in the indictment were for the most part well known since the congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol wrapped up seven months ago — and many of them long before that. In that sense, the unsealing of the document had a bizarrely anti-climactic feel to it, given the stakes.
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