The trial America needs
By David French
At last. The federal criminal justice system is going to legal war against one of the most dishonest, malicious and damaging conspiracies in the history of the United States. Tuesday’s indictment of Donald Trump, brought by special counsel Jack Smith’s office, is the culmination of a comprehensive effort to bring justice to those who attempted to overthrow the results of an American presidential election.
In the weeks after the 2020 election, the legal system was in a defensive crouch, repelling an onslaught of patently frivolous claims designed to reverse the election results. In the months and years since the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, the legal system has switched from defense to offense. With all deliberate speed, prosecutors first brought charges against Trump’s foot soldiers, the men and women who breached the Capitol. Next, prosecutors pursued the organizers of Trumpist right-wing militias, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who had engaged in a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in the White House.
And now, Smith is pursuing Trump himself — along with six yet unnamed co-conspirators — alleging criminal schemes that reached the highest level of American government. This is the case that, if successful, can once and for all strip Trump of any pretense of good faith or good will. But make no mistake, the outcome of this case is uncertain for exactly the reason it’s so important: So very much of the case depends on Trump’s state of mind.
At the risk of oversimplifying an indictment that contains four distinct counts — conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights — it can be broken down into two indispensable components. First, it will be necessary to prove what Trump knew. Second, it will be necessary to prove what he did. Let’s take, for example, the first count of the indictment: 18 U.S.C. Section 371, conspiracy to defraud the United States. The statute is designed to criminalize any interference or obstruction of a “lawful governmental function” by “deceit, craft or trickery.”
There’s little doubt that Trump conspired to interfere with or obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election. But to prevail in the case, the government has to prove that he possessed an intent to defraud or to make false statements. In other words, if you were to urge a government official to overturn election results based on a good faith belief that serious fraud had altered the results, you would not be violating the law. Instead, you’d be exercising your First Amendment rights.
The indictment itself recognizes the constitutional issues in play. In Paragraph 3, the prosecutors correctly state that Trump “had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election and even to claim, falsely, that there had been outcome-determinative fraud during the election and that he had won.”
Thus, it becomes all-important for the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Trump knew he lost. Arguably the most important allegations in the indictment detail the many times that senior administration officials — from the vice president to the director of national intelligence to senior members of the Justice Department to senior White House lawyers — told him that there was no fraud or foreign interference sufficient to change the results of the election. That’s why it’s vitally important for the prosecution to cite, for example, the moment when Trump himself purportedly described one of his accused co-conspirators’ election fraud claims as “crazy.”
The strong constitutional protection for efforts to influence or persuade the government makes the intent element inescapable, no matter the count in the indictment. While there are certainly nuances in the other counts regarding the precise form of proof necessary to establish criminal intent, the fact remains that the prosecution will have to utterly demolish the idea that Trump possessed a good-faith belief that he had won the election.
But that’s precisely why this case is so important — more important than any previous Trump indictment. If the prosecution prevails, it will only be because it presented proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the election fraud claims that a substantial percentage of Americans still believe to be true were not only false but were also known to be false when they were made.
I am not naive. I know that not even a guilty verdict will change the perceptions of many of Trump’s most loyal supporters. As my Times colleague Nate Cohn wrote Monday, “The MAGA base doesn’t support Mr. Trump in spite of his flaws. It supports him because it doesn’t seem to believe he has flaws.” The perceptions of these supporters may never change. They may remain loyal to Trump as long as they live.
At the same time, however, a successful federal trial would strip Trump’s defenders of key talking points — that his voter fraud and vote manipulation claims have never been fully tested, that the House Jan. 6 committee was nothing but a one-sided show trial and that a proper cross-examination would expose the weakness of the government’s claims. Trump will have his opportunity to challenge the government’s case. His lawyers will have the ability to cross-examine opposing witnesses. We will see his best defense, and a jury will decide whether the prosecution prevails.
The case is no slam dunk. I agree with Politico Magazine columnist and former prosecutor Renato Mariotti, who stated that it is “not as strong” as the federal documents case against Trump. But that’s because the Mar-a-Lago documents case is exceptionally strong and clear. A former Trump administration attorney, Ty Cobb, has described the evidence as “overwhelming.” The facts appear to be uncomplicated. By contrast, the facts underlying this new indictment are anything but simple. And Trump possesses legal defenses — such as challenging the scope and applicability of the relevant statutes — that he won’t have in his federal trial for withholding documents.
Yet if a prosecutor believes — as Smith appears to — that he can prove Trump knew his claims were false and then engineered a series of schemes to cajole, coerce, deceive and defraud in order to preserve his place in the White House, it would be a travesty of justice not to file charges.
Consider some of the claims in the case. Paragraph 66 of the indictment says that Trump directed “fraudulent electors” to convene “sham proceedings” to cast “fraudulent electoral ballots” in his favor. Paragraph 31, quoting audio recordings, claims that Trump told the Georgia secretary of state that he needed to “find” 11,780 votes and said that the secretary of state and his counsel faced a “big risk” of criminal prosecution if they (as the special counsel describes it) “failed to find election fraud as he demanded.”
This is but the tip of the iceberg of the wrongdoing Trump is accused of. But those two claims alone — even leaving aside the events of Jan. 6 and the host of other Trump efforts to overturn the election — merit bringing charges.
Millions of Americans believe today that Joe Biden stole the presidency. They believe a series of demonstrable, provable lies, and their belief in those lies is shaking their faith in our republic and, by extension, risking the very existence of our democracy. There is no sure way to shake their convictions, especially if they are convinced that Trump is the innocent victim of a dark and malign deep state. But the judicial system can expose his claims to exacting scrutiny, and that scrutiny has the potential to change those minds that are open to the truth.
Smith has brought a difficult case. But it’s a necessary case. Foot soldiers of the Trump movement are in prison. Its allied militia leaders are facing justice. And now the architect of our national chaos will face his day in court. This is the trial America needs.