Trump finally indicted for Jan. 6 plot: Here's why this is the big one

Trump has been criminally charged for attempting to stop the peaceful transfer of power

Published August 1, 2023 5:56PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This is the big one. It is tempting to say that today's indictment is significant mainly because it is the third time Donald Trump has been indicted — an extraordinary record for a former leader. Some will instead argue that these three indictments are piling on by partisan prosecutors. These are precisely the wrong frames.

Here's why today's indictment is so important: This is the big one because Donald Trump has been criminally charged for attempting to stop the peaceful transfer of power, and the charges come from the very government he tried to take over by force.

Donald Trump committed the ultimate offense against our republican form of government when he attempted to keep himself in power after the American people voted him out, ultimately inciting a violent mob to attack the Capitol to facilitate this plan. Had he succeeded, it would have been effectively the end of our almost two-and-a-half-century experiment in democratic self-governance.

Trump has thus far largely managed to escape real accountability for this historic crime, despite an impeachment and a devastating report and series of hearings from the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6 uprising. He is free and in charge of his businesses. More importantly, he remains the de facto leader of one of our major political parties and a likely presidential nominee, and he has made the false claim that he won the last election and the denial of the insurrection he incited a central tenet of his political movement. It is hard to contemplate a more significant offense, and this lack of accountability — indeed this celebration of his crime — is untenable.

The charges come from the very government he tried to take over by force.

Each of the indictments of Donald Trump is significant. His lies to cover up a hush-money scheme and his outrageous retention of dangerous classified documents — and obstruction of the subsequent investigation — all demonstrate his pursuit of his own power and whims with no regard for the law. But this one is different. 

If Donald Trump were to avoid real consequences for his schemes to keep himself in power, we would risk not only having the criminal attempt to overturn an election be forgotten or normalized, but actually having it become a part of our political identity and a template for future action by a significant segment of our population. We risk endorsing the destruction of our democracy in the near future.

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Today's indictment starts the process of pulling us back from that precipice. It makes clear that Trump's attempt to keep himself in power contrary to the decision of the American people was not a reflection of deeply held beliefs or the start of a political movement, but a criminal act, pure and simple. These charges strengthen the coming litigation to enforce the 14th Amendment's disqualification of Trump from any future office because he engaged in insurrection, one of the key ways of securing our democracy moving forward. And, if validated by a jury — a likely outcome, based on the evidence as we understand it — this indictment can lead to sentences that can help prevent Trump and his closest allies from engaging in future attacks on our democratic system precisely because of their past attacks on that system. 

Just as significantly, this is a strong case, charged in a way that will maximize its chance of success. From my experience as a federal corruption prosecutor, I know that juries are deeply skeptical of prosecutions of prominent people that seem like technical charges premised on paperwork and bureaucracy. They don't want to convict leaders even for clear violations of the law unless they see that the conduct involved is wrong, harmful and deserving of punishment.

The stakes are crystal clear in this current indictment. The charges filed by special counsel Jack Smith make clear that Trump is not being charged with minor election or paperwork offenses, but rather with a scheme to install himself as president in violation of the law and the votes of the American people and to overthrow our democracy — a scheme that resulted in at least seven deaths and countless injuries. There could be no more clearly justifiable indictment of a former president.

Challenges remain. A jury pool will surely include many Trump supporters who see the events of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection through the distorted lens Trump has worked hard to create. They will be skeptical of the indictment and the motivations behind it. The indictment itself is a masterful attempt to push past the propaganda to demonstrate not just the facts, but the stakes. It will be incumbent upon Smith's team to make that case at trial in a way that is incontrovertible even for those who start out skeptical. That is a tall order, but I believe Smith can do it, and today's indictment was a crucial start.

Nothing could be more important for the future of America.

By Noah Bookbinder

Noah Bookbinder is the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a former federal corruption prosecutor. He previously served as chief counsel for criminal justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder

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Commentary Donald Trump Indictment Jack Smith Jan. 6 Trump Crimes