On August 1 2023, disgraced former United States President Donald Trump was indicted for the third time, this time in a high-profile case helmed by United States Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith. The charging documents described a political atmosphere of weaponized and violent disinformation narratives which were deliberately circulated to mislead the public and compromise the 2020 presidential elections leading up to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 2021.
A Brief History of Trump’s Indictments
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s third indictment generated wall-to-wall news coverage of every development alongside a proportional stream of editorials, think pieces, and legal analysis. Brittanica.com provided a concise and condensed recap of the indictments and what led to them, as in this biography of Smith:
Jack Smith … [is] American career prosecutor who in November 2022 was appointed special counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in charge of two ongoing investigations into possible criminal activity by former U.S. president Donald Trump. One investigation was related to Trump’s retention and alleged concealment of classified documents after his departure from the White House in January 2021, and the other concerned Trump’s alleged incitement of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which a mob of his supporters attempted to halt Congress’s formal certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the presidential election of 2020. The latter investigation was expanded during the first year and a half of the Biden administration to encompass the funding and organization of the January 6 attack and possible broader efforts by Trump and his aides to overturn the election, including by creating “fake” slates of pro-Trump electors in certain swing states.
In June 2023 Smith’s office filed indictments of Trump and his personal aide Waltine Nauta on multiple criminal charges stemming from the classified documents probe, including the willful retention of defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice. In July 2023 Trump announced on social media that he had received a “target letter” from the DOJ officially informing him that he was a subject of the broadened January 6 investigation. The letter, which was not made public, indicated that the DOJ was ready to seek an indictment of Trump from a federal grand jury on additional criminal charges. In August 2023 Smith’s office filed the expected indictment, which charged Trump with obstruction of an official proceeding and three counts of conspiracy (conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, to defraud the United States, and to impede the free exercise of the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted).
On August 1, 2023, a grand jury indicted Trump in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on four charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States; obstructing an official proceeding related to the certification of the election results on January 6, 2021; conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding; and conspiracy against rights. The indictment mentioned six unnamed co-conspirators. It is Trump’s third indictment and the first indictment [ever filed] against a U.S. president concerning their actions while in office.
“I AM NOW GOING TO WASHINGTON, D.C., TO BE ARRESTED FOR HAVING CHALLENGED A CORRUPT, RIGGED, & STOLEN ELECTION. IT IS A GREAT HONOR, BECAUSE I AM BEING ARRESTED FOR YOU. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!”
“I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!”
“The latest Fake “case” brought by Crooked Joe Biden & Deranged Jack Smith will hopefully be moved to an impartial Venue, such as the politically unbiased nearby State of West Virginia! IMPOSSIBLE to get a fair trial in Washington, D.C., which is over 95% anti-Trump, & for which I have called for a Federal TAKEOVER in order to bring our Capital back to Greatness. It is now a high crime embarrassment to our Nation and, indeed, the World. This Indictment is all about Election Interference!!!”
A CNN liveblog about Trump’s arraignment reported:
After arriving at the US District Court this afternoon [of August 3 2023], Trump will be placed under arrest, processed and likely arraigned in court.
Because Trump has already been processed in the federal system for his [prior] arrest in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, his booking [on August 3 2023] is likely to be streamlined.
Trump is expected to plead not guilty and to be released pending trial.
This is Trump’s third arrest in four months [as of August 2023]. Smith charged Trump in the classified documents probe in June , and a Manhattan grand jury charged the former president for business fraud in March . Trump, who is running for president in 2024, pleaded not guilty in both cases.
Good evening. Today [August 1 2023], an indictment was unsealed charging Donald J. Trump with conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to disenfranchise voters, and conspiring and attempting to obstruct an official proceeding. The indictment was issued by a grand jury of citizens here in the District of Columbia and sets forth the crimes charged in detail. I encourage everyone to read it in full.
The attack on our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy. 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, the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.
The men and women of law enforcement who defended the U.S. Capitol on January 6  are heroes. They’re patriots, and they are the very best of us. They did not just defend a building or the people sheltering in it. They put their lives on the line to defend who we are as a country and as a people. They defended the very institutions and principles that define the United States.
Since the attack on our Capitol, the Department of Justice has remained committed to ensuring accountability for those criminally responsible for what happened that day. This case is brought consistent with that commitment, and our investigation of other individuals continues.
In this case, my office will seek a speedy trial so that our evidence can be tested in court and judged by a jury of citizens. In the meantime, I must emphasize that the indictment is only an allegation and that the defendant must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
I would like to thank the members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who are working on this investigation with my office, as well as the many career prosecutors and law enforcement agents from around the country who have worked on previous January 6 investigations. These women and men are public servants at the very highest order, and it is a privilege to work alongside them. Thank you.
The DoJ published the indictment in its entirety [PDF]; it was 45 pages long.
The Third Trump Indictment in Brief
In the statement by Special Counsel Jack Smith excerpted above, a section held that the events of January 6 2021 were “fueled by lies … targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government, the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.”
The indictment began with a section labeled “Introduction.” On page 2, the indictment acknowledged the existence of First Amendment protections regarding knowingly false statements:
The Defendant [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. He was also entitled to formally challenge the results of the election through lawful and appropriate means, such as by seeking recounts or audits of the popular vote in states or filing lawsuits challenging ballots and procedures. Indeed, in many cases, the Defendant did pursue these methods of contesting the election results. His efforts to change the outcome in any state through recounts, audits, or legal challenges were uniformly unsuccessful.
Immediately thereafter, the indictment explained why prosecutors argued that Trump’s promulgation of knowingly false information did not fall under those protections, outlining an alleged conspiracy to defraud the government and its citizens:
Shortly after election day, the Defendant also pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results. In so doing, the Defendant perpetrated three criminal conspiracies:
a. A conspiracy to defraud the United States by using dishonesty, fraud, and deceit to impair, obstruct, and defeat the lawful federal government function by which the results of the presidential election are collected, counted, and certified by the federal government, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371;
b. A conspiracy to corruptly obstruct and impede the January 6 congressional proceeding at which the collected results of the presidential election are counted and certified (“the certification proceeding”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(k);and
c. A conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241.
Each of these conspiracies—which built on the widespread mistrust the Defendant 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 federal government function”).
The purpose of the conspiracy was to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election by using knowingly false claims of election fraud to obstruct the federal government function by which those results are collected, counted, and certified.
On page 5 of the indictment, a chaotic transfer of power in January 2021 was mentioned again:
This federal government function—from the point of [electoral] ascertainment to the certification—is foundational to the United States’ democratic process, and until 2021, had operated in a peaceful and orderly manner for more than 130 years.
After detailing each of the four charges and their alleged purposes, the indictment moved on to specific allegations about Trump and disinformation between the November 2020 election and the deadly January 6 2021 attack on the United States Capitol.
The Third Trump Indictment is About Weaponized Information: A Partial List
A section on page five, “Manner and Means,” provided a detailed summary of the “the Defendant’s conspiracy to impair, obstruct, and defeat the federal government function through dishonesty, fraud, and deceit,” referencing several high-profile attempts to subvert the transfer of power to President Joe Biden.
A section on page 6, “The Defendant’s Knowledge of the Falsity of His Election Fraud Claims,” touched on the types falsehoods leveraged to disrupt the 2020 election and 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden:
The Defendant, his co-conspirators, and their agents made knowingly false claims that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the 2020 presidential election. These prolific lies about election fraud included dozens of specific claims that there had been substantial fraud in certain states, such as that large numbers of dead, non-resident, non-citizen, or otherwise ineligible voters had cast ballots, or that voting machines had changed votes for the Defendant to votes for Biden. These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false. In fact, the Defendant was notified repeatedly that his claims were untrue—often by the people on whom he relied for candid advice on important matters, and who were best positioned to know the facts— and he deliberately disregarded the truth …
Page 8 of the document indicated that “The Defendant widely disseminated his false claims of election fraud for months, despite the fact that he knew, and in many cases had been informed directly, that they were not true,” citing several specific examples of the claims.
a. The Defendant insinuated that more than ten thousand dead voters had voted in Georgia. Just four days earlier, Georgia’s Secretary of State had explained to the Defendant that this was false.
b. The Defendant asserted that there had been 205,000 more votes than voters in Pennsylvania. The Defendant’s Acting Attorney General and Acting Deputy Attorney General had explained to him that this was false.
c. The Defendant said that there had been a suspicious vote dump in Detroit, Michigan. The Defendant’s Attorney General had explained to the Defendant that this was false, and the Defendant’s allies in the Michigan
Point A dealt with claims about dead people purportedly voting in Georgia in 2020, addressed here. CNN was one of many sites to address the “more votes than voters” claim from point B, and the “suspicious vote dump in Detroit” falsehood was examined here.
On page 12, the indictment indicated that “[a]nother agent of the Defendant and Co-Conspirator 1 played a misleading excerpt of a video recording of ballot-counting at State Farm Arena in Atlanta and insinuated that it showed election workers counting ‘suitcases’ of illegal ballots.” We addressed claims about the 2020 election and Atlanta, Georgia’s State Farm Arena here.
Page 14 included a section that appeared to reference a Georgia election worker who was falsely accused as part of the alleged conspiracy:
Then, [Co-Conspirator 1] cited two election workers by name, baselessly accused them of “quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin or cocaine,” and suggested that they were criminals whose “places of work, their homes, should have been searched for evidence of ballots, for evidence of USB ports, for evidence of voter fraud.” Thereafter, the two election workers received numerous death threats.
On page 21, the indictment asserted that on “January 6, 2021, the Defendant publicly repeated knowingly false claims that there had been tens of thousands of unlawful votes in Wisconsin,” a claim we examined on November 4 2020. Another section of page 21 delved into the matter of “alternate slates of electors,” or “fake electors“:
As the Defendant’s attempts to obstruct the electoral vote through deceit of state officials met with repeated failure, beginning in early December 2020, he and co-conspirators developed a new plan: to marshal individuals who would have served as the Defendant’s electors, had he won the popular vote, in seven targeted states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and cause those individuals to make and send to the Vice President and Congress false certifications that they were legitimate electors. Under the plan, the submission of these fraudulent slates would create a fake controversy at the certification proceeding and position the Vice President—presiding on January 6 as President of the Senate— to supplant legitimate electors with the Defendant’s fake electors and certify the Defendant as president.
From there, the indictment largely addressed the events leading up to and on January 6 2021.
On August 1 2023, Special Counsel Jack Smith unsealed a third indictment against Donald Trump consisting of four charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstructing an official proceeding (on January 6, 2021), conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy against the rights of Americans to have their votes counted. Smith’s indictment also served as a timeline of disinformation spread to disrupt the 2020 election, and finally as an example of the quiet but vital role of counterdisinformation research and related journalism.