Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.
Former President Donald Trump was indicted for an unprecedented third time on August 1, adding another set of serious federal charges to the mounting legal issues he faces.
Trump was indicted as part of the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation, led by special counsel Jack Smith, into the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. The indictment marks the second time Trump has faced federal charges, and he remains the only president to have been federally indicted.
Trump is charged with four counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy against rights. Trump could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the obstruction-related charges and 10 years for the conspiracy against rights charge. It’s not yet clear when Trump will be arraigned in Washington, DC, federal court.
The indictment is the product of a months-long investigation in which Smith’s team questioned several high-profile members of Trump’s circle, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former White House communications director Hope Hicks. It follows the House January 6 committee’s investigation last year, which concluded that Trump incited the insurrection and conspired to defraud the US government, referring him and other associates to the DOJ for prosecution.
“Since the attack on our capital, the Department of Justice has remained committed to ensuring accountability for those criminally responsible for what happened that day,” Smith said in a news conference Tuesday. “This case is brought consistent with that commitment and our investigation of other individuals continues.”
Trump seemed to know the indictment was coming. He posted August 1 on TruthSocial that Smith “will be putting out yet another Fake Indictment of your Favorite President, me,” and previously posted on the platform that he’d received what’s known as a target letter from Smith.
After the indictment was released, Trump claimed, despite Smith’s investigation being independent from the White House, that Biden was trying to hurt his strong standing in the 2024 polls. “This is nothing more than the latest corrupt chapter in the continued pathetic attempt by the Biden Crime Family and their weaponized Department of Justice to interfere with the 2024 Presidential Election, in which President Trump is the undisputed frontrunner, and leading by substantial margins,” the Trump campaign said in a statement reacting to the indictment Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know about what happens next.
What are the charges against Trump?
The indictment argues Trump and a group of allies that the document refers to as his “co-conspirators” knew that their claims that the 2020 election was stolen were false, but that they spread them anyway — and even launched a “criminal scheme” to support them.
The indictment delves into the first count at length. It centers on that “criminal scheme,” which it claims, involved a prolonged pressure and influence campaign that targeted state politicians in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona. When no politician would help him overturn the election, the indictment says Trump went on to use “Dishonesty, Fraud, and Deceit” to assemble a slate of unlawful Electoral College electors in seven states, and that he and his allies lied to many electors to get them to go along with the plan. Then, Trump tried to use the powers of the executive branch — both those given to the Department of Justice and the vice president — to stay in power. Finally, the indictment places the violence of January 6 at Trump’s feet.
The other three counts are addressed in brief. The second count accuses Trump of planning to stop the certification of the electoral vote; the third, of him actually stopping the vote, and the fourth, of conspiring with others to disenfranchise Americans.
“Each of these conspiracies—which built on the widespread mistrust [Trump] was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud— targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election,” the indictment reads.
Will Trump be arrested and go to jail?
Trump is not expected to be jailed following his arraignment, following a pattern established by his previous arraignments in New York and Miami. Trump was previously fingerprinted in those cases but was not put in handcuffs and did not have his mugshot taken. There were cameras allowed in the courtroom in New York, but not in Miami. He was also allowed to return homefollowing both arraignments.
What does this mean for Trump’s 2024 campaign?
So far, Trump has simply brushed off his legal entanglements, and they appear to be helping him in the 2024 polls. He remains the frontrunner in the GOP primary, polling more than 30 percentage points on average ahead of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, notes that previous indictments were easy for GOP voters to dismiss, but it’s unclear whether this latest indictment will follow that trend.
Many legal analysts have said Trump’s first indictment in New York has weak underpinnings, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had previously boasted about how many times he had sued the Trump administration during his campaign. Together, those factors left many Republicans waving away that indictment as a “partisan witch hunt.”
The second, in the case concerning Trump’s retention of classified documents after he left office, was a “blockbuster legally,” Ayres said, but given Bragg’s indictment had come before it, was easy for Republicans to brush it off yet again.
It’s difficult to know exactly what will happen now that Trump has been indicted for a third time. But if Republicans’ reaction to the House January 6 committee’s investigation is any indication, it might do little to sway the base.
“It was an article of faith among Republican voters that they weren’t going to watch the January 6 hearings. They just determined ahead of time that it was a partisan witch hunt, even though the vast majority of the witnesses were Trump employees, Trump confidants, and Trump staff members,” Ayres said.
That means that when it comes to the primary, this latest indictment seems unlikely to have a major effect on voters. However, it remains to be seen whether these indictments will cause moderates and independents to turn away from the former president.
Trump has already lost once to President Joe Biden, but in head-to-head matchups over the last month, some polls have him winning by as much as 7 percentage points, while others have him losing by as much as 6 percentage points. Much could change before November 2024, but should Trump be his party’s nominee, those numbers suggest a tight race in which losing moderates and independents in states like Georgia or Pennsylvania could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Overall, even in the best-case scenario for the former president, in which the legal issues have zero effect on his support, the cases will take away valuable time and money he could be spending on his campaign.
How are Trump’s Republican rivals reacting?
Republicans seeking the 2024 nomination have trod lightly in using the investigations against Trump to attack him as unfit for another term.
Before news of the indictment broke, DeSantis said that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” against violence on January 6, but also told CNN, “I hope he doesn’t get charged.” Vivek Ramaswamy said that he “would have made very different judgments than President Trump did” that day. Nikki Haley suggested that she’s tired of the drama and said, “We can’t be sitting there focused on lawsuits over and over again.”
All three indictments have presented a conundrum for those looking to displace Trump as the GOP frontrunner. Recognizing his continued grip on the Republican primary voters and the risk of alienating them, the candidates have largely refrained from criticizing Trump directly. But in so doing, they have also struggled to carve out distinct lanes and present a clear argument for why the party should dump Trump.
What happens next?
As with the cases against Trump in New York and Florida, the January 6 case could extend well into the 2024 campaign season — or even beyond the election.
Smith has sought a speedy trial in the classified documents case, which is currently scheduled for May 2024, and said in a news conference Tuesday that he also intends to do so in the January 6 case. (Trump, on the other hand, had pushed to delay the trial in the documents case later than the 2024 election to accommodate his campaign calendar.)
Kevin O’Brien, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said it’s unclear whether the January 6 case can feasibly be decided before the 2024 election. It is much bigger in scope and therefore may take longer to resolve, but also carries significant public interest.
“The subject matter has had direct implications for our democratic process. And you can argue the voters should be exposed to that evidence and know [the jury verdict] in that case,” he said.
If Trump wins the 2024 election, then it “would be a brouhaha,” O’Brien said. Any unresolved federal charges would likely become moot under the longstanding DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But if he’s convicted before assuming office, that would create a constitutional question: whether he could later pardon himself.
Update, August 1, 6:35 pm ET: This story was originally published on August 1 and has been updated with details of the indictment, as well as with comments from former President Donald Trump and special counsel Jack Smith.