It’s easy to downplay the third and (perhaps) final indictment that Donald Trump has collected over the course of this year. By now there is a palpable sense of Trump-indictment fatigue: Three indictments, after all, are a lot, even before you factor in the dozens of individual charges he’s facing. The first two were historic in their own ways: Trump became the first president to be arrested when he was charged with campaign finance–related offenses by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg; he became the first president to face federal charges when special prosecutor Jack Smith levied dozens of charges of his own, related to wildly mishandling classified documents.
But score one for “the third time is the charm”: The charges Trump faces in his latest indictment are far more serious and important. Donald Trump attempted to overturn a legitimate election. To do so, he attacked the foundation of American democracy both literally and figuratively. Now American democracy is striking back—and, most importantly, sending a message to future despots who would follow in his footsteps.
It is hard to overstate just how important and how damning this third indictment is. It gets straight to the point. Trump is charged with just four counts—conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, and witness tampering—but at the heart of the indictment are descriptions of extraordinary, unlawful, and authoritarian acts. The conspiracy Trump is charged with is one that was aimed at undermining the bedrock of American democracy: “to overturn the legitimate result of the 2020 election.”
Over 50 pages, the indictment makes it clear that Trump—and several unnamed co-conspirators, mostly lawyers—knew he had lost the 2020 election and yet pursued an elaborate and concerted scheme to overturn it. It is abundantly clear that dozens of officials—including Vice President Pence, senior Department of Justice figures, campaign staffers, and White House attorneys—told Trump dozens of times that he had lost the election and that there was no evidence of fraud. In exhaustive detail, the indictment shows that Trump made hundreds of false statements about the 2020 election—lies that culminated in the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. As part of this scheme, Trump and his allies undertook an audacious and brazenly illegal effort to disenfranchise thousands of voters across the country.
The third indictment’s significance is partially due to the deficiencies of its two predecessors. Bragg’s—by far the weakest—relies on a novel and untested interpretation of the law: He is essentially attempting to convict Trump on federal campaign finance charges but using a weird and ungainly New York State law workaround to get there.
It is undoubtedly true that Trump did pay hush money to a woman he had an affair with in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. But he did so in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape, at a time when everyone, Trump included, thought he had no chance of winning the election. It is not obvious—and indeed I think it’s doubtful—that he paid the money for the purpose of concealing the affair from the public and thus improving his (then seen as dismal) electoral odds. The likeliest explanation is still that Trump’s primary motivation for paying the money was to keep his third wife—who had recently given birth to their child when the affair occurred—in the dark.
The second indictment is far stronger than the first. There can be no doubt that Donald Trump not only held onto purloined classified documents—including defense plans and information about nuclear capabilities—but secured them in comically insecure places, including a bathroom in a private club that is undoubtedly a favorite haunt of spies and others with ties to foreign governments. There’s no doubt that Trump’s signature mix of bumbling incompetence and neediness is fully on display: He held onto these materials because he wanted to wave them around at whoever happened to be near him at the time. The documents were, in a sense, not only souvenirs but proof that Trump—Donald Trump!—really was president. You do not get a plaque or a scepter for being president; these were a kind of proof that he had once wielded massive power.
But there’s little beyond this dose of cringe. Some have presumed that there might be something more sinister here—that Trump was, for instance, trying to profit from the information he hoarded. Actual evidence has been in short supply, though—there are only vague suspicions, coated in the scent of the #Resistance era’s heyday. So while this indictment tells a story of Donald Trump, it doesn’t tell the full one. You get a passing reminder of just how pathetic and stupid Donald Trump can be. What’s missing is the danger he poses.
But this is the most potent ingredient of this third indictment. Here we have the most complete picture of Donald Trump: the incompetence, the neediness, and the despotism. Trump was desperate to hold onto power because he didn’t want to seem like a loser. It’s also very possible that he wanted to remain in office because it was a sturdy shelter from the various criminal investigations swirling around himself and his companies. And, not for nothing, but he probably wanted to maintain his grip on the presidency because he had, despite massive resistance, started to finally install loyalists in positions of power and was realizing just how much he could do if the federal government was remade in his own rank image.
In any case, to do so he engaged in several criminal schemes that tested the limits of America’s political and legal systems, both of which bent without breaking. These ventures culminated in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, which resulted in several deaths—and, it is worth underlining, hundreds of prosecutions. Yet the attempted sacking of the Capitol wouldn’t have happened without Trump’s many other assaults, big and small, on American democracy in the months prior. Trump led that riot without exactly orchestrating it and, as a result, has thus far evaded prosecution.
The images of January 6—cops beaten with their own weapons, insurrectionists gawking in the halls of the Capitol, rioters yelling about their desire to lynch the then vice president and speaker of the house—have understandably dominated the conversation surrounding Trump’s attempt to reverse a legitimate election. But all his practiced machinations that led up to that day should be understood as part of the attack as well: They represented a systematic onslaught against American democracy and were launched with the intention to undo it in the most fundamental way.
There has been much hand-wringing about the politicization of Trump’s prosecutions, given his status as the current front-runner in the Republican presidential primary—that the charges he faces will undoubtedly be seen as political, an attempt by the Biden administration to take down its most dangerous rival. But this reasoning is precisely backward. To ensure the integrity of the American political system, those who attack its foundation must be prosecuted. There must be consequences. This is the only way that system can survive. Now, at long last, the system is finally fighting back.