Special counsel Jack Smith is not done with former President Donald Trump and his entourage, despite charging him with four criminal counts over his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election and more than three dozen other charges over his hoarding of classified documents in Florida.
The clash between the hard-driving prosecutor and the world’s most famous defendant escalated even further on Tuesday, as new details of Smith’s widening probe into election interference emerged. The special counsel is now looking at how money raised off baseless claims of voter fraud was used to fund attempts to breach voting equipment in several states won by President Joe Biden, CNN exclusively reported.
Smith later Tuesday rebuked the ex-president in a new court filing, accusing him of making daily statements that threatened to prejudice the jury pool in Washington – the latest sign of growing acrimony with Trump’s camp ahead of a trial scheduled for the day before Super Tuesday in March. The news underscored the highly unusual nature of a pending trial of a former president who is running to reclaim the White House – and the free speech questions involved in prosecuting the current GOP front-runner. It also raises questions about the way that Trump, due to his position, may be able to get away with commentary that would never be tolerated from a regular defendant.
Smith’s probe isn’t the only one into the aftermath of the 2020 election. A dramatic series of legal developments in the Fulton County, Georgia, investigation – in which Trump and 18 co-defendants are also awaiting trial – encapsulated the breadth of the former president’s legal exposure. A judge is due to hold a first televised hearing in the case Wednesday that will begin to work through issues that could decide whether the racketeering case is packaged into smaller trials and how quickly Trump could therefore be put on trial.
Also in Georgia – the epicenter of Trump’s election interference effort and of America’s recent knife-edge politics – former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is still waiting to hear whether his bid to get his trial elevated into the federal court system, where he hopes the charges could be dismissed, will succeed. The gambit likely foreshadows a later similar effort by the ex-president, which could complicate District Attorney Fani Willis’ prosecution.
The legal churn in Georgia quickened on a day when Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the far-right Proud Boys group, was sentenced by a judge in Washington to the longest jail term yet of any defendant related to the January 6, 2021, attack on Congress by a pro-Trump mob. “I don’t have any indication that he is remorseful for the actual things he is convicted of, which is seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct the counting of electoral votes,” District Judge Timothy Kelly said.
The sentencing of Tarrio followed several other long jail terms handed down to other members of the Proud Boys, some of whom were more remorseful than their leader. The sentences show that the price for engaging in political violence after the 2020 election is rising. But despite Trump’s legal problems, which seem to deepen by the day, it remains unclear whether the ex-president who unleashed the most flagrant attack on a democratic election in US history will also pay a severe price.
Efforts to hold Trump to account would be complex in any circumstance, but the fact that Trump is running for a second, non-consecutive term is making the legal maneuverings even more polarizing.
The dichotomy between the level of legal and political accountability has rarely been more stark. A new CNN poll released Tuesday showed Trump’s dominance of the Republican presidential race. At 52% among Republican and Republican-leaning independents, he has more support than all of the other GOP candidates put together. The poll also pointed to a major reason why: A majority of the GOP primary electorate said that the charges against Trump in all the cases (the fourth is related to a hush money payment to an adult film actress in 2016) are not relevant to his fitness to serve as president. And 61% of Republican-leaning adults said that Trump is facing so many charges largely because of political abuse of the justice system.
In isolation, it seems extraordinary that a majority of Republican voters believe that being charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, among other counts in Smith’s prosecution and in Georgia, has no bearing on whether Trump is fit to raise his hand to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. But this political reality underscores the success of Trump’s long strategy – dating all the way back to 2016 – to sow distrust in the US electoral and justice systems and other institutions like the media. Trump supporters are often deeply bought into the idea that Washington “elites” are corrupt and, in the words of his 2024 campaign theme, are persecuting him to keep him from a return to power.
Many Republicans also complain that Biden’s son Hunter has gotten a pass from the Justice Department on tax charges and over indications that he used his proximity to his father when he was vice president to boost his business career in places like Ukraine. They see this as proof the justice system is prejudiced against Trump, while House Republicans have even leveled these accusations to support talk of an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, despite offering no concrete evidence of wrongdoing by the president.
Whatever happens in next year’s election, these reverberating shockwaves from the Trump years will have a profound impact on American democracy and governance. Most immediately, Trump’s strong prospects of winning the GOP nomination and the possibility that he could be a convicted felon by Election Day, despite his not guilty pleas in all four cases, mean the next year will be tumultuous. And while Trump’s indictments almost seem to have solidified his hold on the Republican race, his criminal liability may also show why he may struggle to capture the presidency again in an evenly divided country and why the outcome of some of his trials could be so crucial.
In the CNN poll, among the public more broadly, about half of respondents said the charges related to January 6 and to efforts to overturn the 2020 election should disqualify him from the presidency, if true. Still, if he is the Republican nominee he’d face an unpopular incumbent whom the public believes, at 80, is already too old to run for a second term, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll.
Trump continually dials up the heat, underscoring how his legal defense and presidential campaign have merged. On Tuesday evening, for instance, he accused Smith of being “deranged” and of showing “unchecked and insane aggression” in a post on his Truth Social network. Smith said in a filing to the court that the ex-president had made “daily extrajudicial statements that threaten to prejudice the jury.”
The allegation came in a court fight that remains largely under seal so it was impossible to know the full extent of the dispute. The judge in the case, Tanya Chutkan, has previously warned that Trump’s needs as a political candidate cannot take priority over his role as a criminal defendant. She specifically warned last month that repeated inflammatory statements by the Republican front-runner could cause her to speed up the date of the trial to protect its integrity and to avoid prejudicing the jury pool. She granted that Trump had a right to free speech but noted that it was not absolute.
Smith may remain the ex-president’s greatest threat as the prosecutor with the best chance to complete a case against Trump early in the election year. Indeed his team said in an filing in August that the public had a “strong interest” in a speedy trial because the case concerned an ex-president “charged with conspiring to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, obstruct the certification of the election results and discount citizens’ legitimate votes.”
Many legal experts concluded that Smith’s decision to charge only Trump in the federal election interference case was to avoid the kind of time-consuming legal wrangling in a multiple defendant case that is taking place in Georgia and could see some defendants peeling off to individual trials or cause delays in the case reaching court.
But his investigation into election interference is not ending, CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Paula Reid reported Tuesday. The special counsel’s team is focusing its questions on the role of Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell. According to invoices obtained by CNN, Powell’s non-profit, Defending the Republic, hired forensics firms that ultimately accessed voting equipment in four swing states won by Biden: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona. Powell has already pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in Georgia. She has also been identified by CNN as one of Trump’s un-indicted co-conspirators listed in Smith’s federal election indictment. It is not immediately clear how the newly revealed tributary of the investigation fits into his wider probe. Smith’s office declined to comment.
The fact that Smith’s prosecutors are continuing their work may cause nervousness in Trump’s orbit. After all, there’s precedent for the special counsel following up with further charges after earlier indictments. In July, for example, he filed three additional charges against Trump regarding the alleged willful retention of national defense information and related to alleged obstruction in the documents case. New charges were also filed against Trump aide Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago maintenance manager Carlos De Oliveira.