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Presidential historian weighs in the significance of Trump's indictment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former President Trump has been indicted again, this time by a federal grand jury for efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The indictment contains four counts - conspiracy to defraud the United States, witness tampering, conspiracy against the rights of citizens and obstruction of and attempt to obstruct a federal proceeding.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

So let's quickly refresh ourselves on how we got here. Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election began almost immediately after Biden was declared the winner. There were lawsuits and press conferences. Here's Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, at Four Seasons Landscaping in Philadelphia.

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RUDY GIULIANI: This is outrageous. An enormously important contest with a very, very suspect method of voting - there was no security, zero.

PFEIFFER: And there were phone calls.

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DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes - which is one more than we have - because we won the state.

CHANG: Well, by January 6, 2021, with all of his legal challenges exhausted, Trump called his supporters to Washington, D.C., for a, quote, "stop the steal" rally outside the White House. Down the National Mall, lawmakers were gathering in the U.S. Capitol to certify the results of the election.

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TRUMP: Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we're going to walk down - and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down. We're going to walk down - anyone you want. But I think right here, we're going to walk down to the Capitol.

(CHEERING)

PFEIFFER: Trump didn't actually walk down with them. He went back inside the White House and watched the ensuing riot unfold on TV. We now know that Trump's aides were pleading with him to call off his supporters as they forced themselves inside the Capitol. Eventually, after several hours, he did it, albeit halfheartedly.

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TRUMP: Go home. We love you. You're very special. You've seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.

CHANG: And then the aftermath - there was an impeachment, Trump's second impeachment in as many years. There was a massive congressional investigation which took 18 months and reviewed more than a million documents.

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LIZ CHENEY: As rioters chanted, hang Mike Pence, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, said that, quote, "Mike deserves it" and that those rioters were not doing anything wrong.

PFEIFFER: And then last November, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to lead the Department of Justice's investigation into, quote, "efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election." So far, the Department of Justice has charged more than 1,000 people related to its January 6 investigations. Up until today, Donald Trump was not one of them.

CHANG: Earlier this evening, I talked about the significance of a former U.S. president getting indicted with presidential historian Tim Naftali.

TIM NAFTALI: Felonies matter. And the documents case is a case regarding the Espionage Act and the retention of classified material, sharing of that material with people who are not authorized and then refusing to return that material under subpoena. And finally, with the new sort of super indictment or the most recent version, the former president was also charged with willfully ordering the destruction of materials to advance a cover up. So felonies matter. The difference today is that for the first time in our history, a presidential candidate - because he was - is being indicted for trying to defraud our electoral system. Now, throughout our history, there have been allegations of fraud. Through our history, there no doubt have been moments of fraud. But in this particular case, the 2020 election was not affected by a level of fraud that would have altered the outcome.

Nevertheless, former President Trump continued in a stop the steal campaign, which ultimately led to violence. The House, in a really brilliant effort, laid out an argument about the president's - former president's responsibility, that he actually bore culpability for the violent outcome on January 6. What we see today is a legal argument that he is culpable for those difficult days that we went through in 2020 and early 2021. This is the first time any American citizen with the powers of a president has ever been held, has ever been indicted or charged with this - with trying to deprive us of our right to vote...

CHANG: Correct.

NAFTALI: ...And our right to have our vote counted. So this is - while all felonies matter, this indictment puts Trump in a level that no American leader has been in since Jefferson Davis was indicted in the 18th - in the 19th century.

CHANG: Wow. Well, in those terms, it does sound quite stark. I want to talk in just the minute and 20 seconds or so that we have left about what's to come. I want to play some tape from special counsel Jack Smith, who spoke to reporters this evening. It was a very brief statement, but he had this to say.

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JACK SMITH: 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.

CHANG: OK. So my question for you, Mr. Naftali - how will this impact of a trial be on the country? I mean, in the midst of an election, how can this trial unfold? What should we be expecting as voters who are facing another presidential election for whom he is still the Republican frontrunner?

NAFTALI: I suggest we take a longer view. There's no way of knowing if the 37% of those who were recently polled by The New York Times and seemed to be totally committed to Donald Trump will change their minds, or the 15% who are persuadable at the moment are leaning towards Donald Trump. We don't know. But what really matters is that this is allowing for a teachable moment for the entire country that will be reviewed for years to come. The fact that a former president has been held to this very important standard and is on trial for having deprived us of our right to vote is a big deal. And I think that is the meaning for the country.

CHANG: That is presidential historian Tim Naftali, thank you so much.

NAFTALI: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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