Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump on Thursday is expected to return to the epicenter of his alleged bid to overthrow the 2020 election to answer historic charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Trump will be arraigned after being indicted over a series of alleged schemes to thwart President Joe Biden’s victory and his conduct following the mob attack on the US Capitol, behavior that was described by his own attorney general, Bill Barr, as “nauseating” and “despicable” in an exclusive CNN interview on Wednesday.
Although this will not be the ex-president’s first trip back to the capital after snubbing Biden’s inauguration, the sight of his motorcade winding its way through Washington, DC, may trigger trauma still felt by residents over a dark day in history 31 months ago.
The hearing will be the latest twist in an extraordinary and historic saga surrounding an ex-president and front-runner for a major party nomination in 2024, who has so far been indicted in three separate criminal probes.
It is also a defining moment in the effort by government and judicial institutions to account for the worst attack on democracy in modern times.
Hundreds of Trump’s supporters have already faced a courtroom reckoning for their efforts to disrupt the certification of a democratic election. Now, it’s the alleged ringleader’s turn.
The procedural hearing for Trump’s arraignment – which follows Tuesday’s bombshell indictment from special counsel Jack Smith – will take place at a federal courthouse near to where he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to save their country and just down the hill from the Capitol, which his crowd invaded on January 6, 2021.
Trump is expected to enter a plea of not guilty, as his lawyers prepare arguments that his claims of election fraud were protected by free speech and that he was simply following the advice of his lawyers, for instance in seeking to assemble alternative electors in key states. Trump’s team is also already arguing he will never get a fair trial in a city where he won only 5% of the vote in 2020 and that he often demonizes.
Thursday’s brief hearing before a magistrate judge will be closely watched for any clues as to the timing of a trial, given that Trump’s calendar is filling up with campaign events and two potential trials in other matters next year. His legal team has already signaled an attempt to delay proceedings until after the November 2024 election in which he could be the GOP nominee.
The hearing is the start of a legal process that represents the most significant push by the judicial system to call the ex-president to account for his attempt to hold onto power despite losing an election.
Hundreds of Trump supporters who were at the Capitol that day have been put on trial. Many have been convicted and some are currently serving significant jail terms. But Trump’s critics have been frustrated that the man who nurtured election conspiracy theories that led to the Capitol riot had so far escaped legal accountability. Some of those concerns have now been addressed – even if Trump has not been specifically charged by Smith with inciting an insurrection.
Trump faces charges of 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. Six co-conspirators are also named in the indictment but were not charged. CNN has established that they include Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani and constitutional attorney John Eastman.
Thursday’s hearing represents a somber moment in American history. For the first time, the United States is getting ready to put on trial a president who apparently sought to eviscerate some of the most basic principles of the Constitution that he was sworn to preserve, protect and defend.
Those democratic values mandate that Trump is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The ex-president’s lawyers have not yet had the chance to challenge Smith’s version of what happened or to cross-examine witnesses whose recollections of events and conversations are relied upon for his indictment.
Why a trial is unlikely to bring the country together
But whatever unfolds in an eventual trial, a moment of catharsis over an episode that has deepened a poisonous national political estrangement is unlikely.
To begin with, this case and two other Trump criminal court proceedings are unfolding in the middle of a presidential campaign in which Trump blasts any attempt to call him to account as tantamount to “election interference.” That means another campaign for the White House is sure to be tainted in the eyes of his millions of followers. Trump is also escalating his pressure on the political and judicial institutions that form the foundation of America’s democratic society – drawing from the same well of extremism and demagoguery he tapped in 2021.
“The Swamp that I am on a mission to drain is trying to imprison me for life as an innocent man,” Trump wrote in a fundraising email to supporters on Wednesday. “There’s no other way to say it: our nation is teetering on the brink of tyranny.”
Trump is clearly intending to create the kind of spectacle Thursday that accompanied his two previous criminal indictments, consistent with his persistent efforts to show he’s a victim of political persecution and to frame himself as a defiant hero to his movement. The federal courthouse in Washington does have facilities for defendants to appear remotely for procedural hearings. But the ex-president is expected to attend in person, necessitating a massive security operation for the kind of worldwide television event in which he revels.
Another reason why Trump’s trial is unlikely to be the kind of unifying event that eases a deep national wound is that most of his Republican Party is closing ranks around him.
“Despite the DOJ’s illegal attempt to interfere in the 2024 election on behalf of Joe Biden, President Trump continues to skyrocket in the polls and will defeat Joe Biden and be sworn in as President of the United States in January 2025,” House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York said in a statement after the indictment.
The GOP’s refusal to abandon Trump – yet again – is even more remarkable since many party figures argued that the legal system, and not the political one, was the correct forum ahead of a Senate trial following his second impeachment by the House of Representatives after the insurrection.
This can be explained by the fact that millions of Republican voters believe that Trump won the election in 2020, despite multiple cases in which the former president claimed fraud being thrown out by the courts. A fresh CNN poll conducted by SSRS that was released on Thursday finds the share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who believe Biden’s win was not legitimate has ticked back up to nearly 70%, reversing progress seen after last year’s House hearings on the January 6 riot.
Large numbers of GOP primary voters are also receptive to the idea that Trump is being targeted by the Biden administration – though such a conclusion is hard to square with evidence of his alleged behavior in the indictment from Smith, an independent special counsel, on the post-election mayhem and in the case over the classified documents he hoarded at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Given the political recriminations of a trial of a former president, it is reasonable to question whether such a prosecution is in the national interest. Yet a failure to use the legal system to respond to an assault on America’s political system would raise questions about the sustainability of democracy.
The grave implications of the last election – and the political reverberations that are now rocking the next one – were encapsulated in comments Wednesday by former Vice President Mike Pence, who is potentially a star witness for Smith given Trump’s repeated efforts, alleged in the indictment, to get him to block the certification of Biden’s victory.
“I really do believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” said Pence, a rare Republican White House hopeful to criticize Trump over the latest indictment. “Anyone who asks someone else to put themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence told reporters at the Indiana state fair.
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