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Donald Trump was arrested in Georgia tonight for his role in what prosecutors christened “a wide-ranging criminal enterprise” aimed at overturning the results of the 2020 election. Trump and 18 others—his former lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and his ex-chief of staff, Mark Meadows, among them—have been formally accused of 41 state-law felonies. The case is brought by Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia. Willis is not the first local prosecutor to charge a United States president with a felony, but she is the first to accuse one of trying to steal an election.
Among charges such as filing false documents and conspiracy to commit forgery, Trump is personally accused of trying to browbeat and suborn felony acts from high-ranking Georgia officials, including the chief elections supervisor, secretary of state Brad Raffensperger. Officials were pressed by Trump and other “co-conspirators” to take action to “decertify the election” and “unlawfully appoint presidential electors,” prosecutors claim. Together, the charges opened the door for Willis to pile on additional counts of racketeering. Filed under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the charge would ask jurors to consider whether Trump and other defendants were involved in a single criminal undertaking. A conviction under RICO does not require that the defendants all know one another, or be involved at the same time, so long as they’re all working toward a single corrupt goal.
RICO, which can carry up to a 20-year prison sentence, is a powerful and even dangerous legal weapon. Out of dozens of possible crimes, a prosecutor may have to prove only two to gain a conviction. The state is fairly ambiguous about what constitutes an “enterprise.” Jurors, meanwhile, may be shown a veritable tower of evidence and instructed, usually in some narrative fashion, to see a “pattern” in the defendants’ acts; something the human brain is already trained to do, even at a subconscious level. For Trump and his team, allowing the case to progress to the point where a jury is actually deliberating RICO is a doomsday scenario.
In addition to the Georgia prosecution, the cases against Trump include one in Manhattan over “hush money” paid to a porn star; a case filed in Florida federal court over his retention of classified documents; and a federal case in Washington, DC, for his role in the January 6 insurrectionist riot at the US Capitol and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In total, Trump is facing 91 felony charges. He has pleaded not guilty to each one so far.
The indictment is the culmination of a political career that Trump built by ignoring checks and balances, mocking the law and the courts, and cheering on supporters who use violence in his name, including groups rooted in white nationalism and misogyny, prone to spontaneous and premeditated violence. More than 1,100 of his most committed supporters have been charged in the past 31 months with trying to physically stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election. More than 80 of them have pleaded guilty to beating police officers who had ordered them to disperse. More than 140 officers were reportedly injured, and four of those would die by suicide within 200 days of the event.
These are not Trump’s only casualties. Legal experts have long warned that Trump’s personal brand of politics—acrimonious, wielding tools of harassment—while deceptively trivial in the face of actual death, millions in damages, and election interference—is corrosive to the very norms and conventions upon which the electoral process has long relied for stability. Prosecuting Trump may help distinguish lawful challenges in future elections from outright criminal acts. But even alone, his arrest has already made clear, certain norm-breaking behaviors the public will not abide, now or in the future, regardless of the courts’ own views.