Understanding the Federal Charges Against Trump for Election Interference

Learn what charges the former president faces in the January 6th case and its latest status.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Updated: April 16, 2024

The third indictment against former President Donald Trump followed the Justice Department's investigation into the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Shortly after this federal indictment came down, a Georgia jury indicted Trump, bringing the total number of charges against the former president to 91. He is a criminal defendant in a New York state case, a Georgia state case, and two federal cases.

The January 6th Indictment

While tied to the January 6th investigation, the four felonies charged in the most recent federal indictment have less to do with the actual riots and more to do with Trump's activities in the months leading up to, and culminating with, the disruption of the January 6th Congressional hearing to certify the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The government accuses the former president of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results. The indictment focuses on Trump and his co-conspirators' alleged plans and dealings to obstruct free and fair elections and, ultimately, the peaceful transfer of presidential power. Only Trump is charged in the case.

This article breaks down what's happening in the January 6th case against Trump and will be updated as the case progresses.

What Is Trump Indicted for in the January 6th Case?

Federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ), led by Special Counsel Jack Smith, allege that Trump and six (unnamed) co-conspirators attempted to overturn the 2020 election results so the former president could remain in power. Trump claims he won the 2020 election and that the indictment is politically motivated and timed to interfere with his 2024 presidential campaign.

Indictment Following the January 6th Investigation

The indictment outlines an alleged conspiracy in which Trump and others engaged in a months-long campaign of lies and fraudulent efforts designed to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election.

Here's a rundown of the allegations that start with actions taken after the November 3, 2020 election and culminate with the U.S. Capitol riots on January 6, 2021.

DOJ's Claims: Election Interference by Trump and Co-Conspirators

The indictment claims that Trump and his enlisted co-conspirators committed federal crimes by:

  • spreading knowingly false claims of election and voter fraud to pressure targeted state officials to change or decertify electoral votes cast for Biden
  • organizing false slates of electors to transmit fraudulent electoral votes to the January 6th certification proceeding
  • attempting to use the DOJ to conduct sham election crime investigations in an effort to advance the false electoral plan(s)
  • filing unfounded lawsuits in several states alleging massive election and voter fraud
  • trying to enlist the Vice President to use his role at the January 6th certification proceeding to fraudulently alter the election results, and
  • exploiting the U.S. Capitol riots to delay the January 6th proceeding and formal certification of the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump's Claims: Election and Voter Fraud in the 2020 Election

Trump's claims of election and voter fraud in the 2020 election include (among others) that:

  • large numbers of dead people and ineligible voters cast ballots in several states indicating rampant voter fraud
  • double voting occurred in certain states
  • election workers engaged in fraud
  • certain voting machines changed votes for Trump to votes for Biden, and
  • Democrats engaged in ballot stuffing.

After the indictment was handed down, he continued to stand by these claims. Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire that "[t]here was never a second of any day that I didn't believe that it was a rigged election. It was a rigged election, and it was a stolen disgusting election."

What Are the Charges Against Trump in the January 6th Case?

The former president faces four felony counts relating to his alleged participation in conspiracies that aimed to reverse the 2020 election results and keep him in power. These charges carry potential sentences of up to 5, 10, and 20 years in federal prison.

Count 1: Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

Count 1 charges Trump with conspiracy to defraud the United States. This law makes it a crime for a person to conspire with another in an attempt to obstruct a lawful "government function" through deceit or dishonesty. As referenced in the indictment, the government function at issue is the accurate collecting, counting, and certifying of electoral votes.

This count relates to allegations that the former president engaged in repeated and widespread efforts to spread false claims of election and voter fraud—knowing the claims were false—with the goal of changing the result of the 2020 presidential election.

(18 U.S.C. § 371; Hammerschmidt v. U.S., 44 S.Ct. 511 (1924).)

Count 2: Conspiracy to Obstruct an Official Proceeding

Count 2 charges Trump with conspiring to corruptly obstruct the January 6th Congressional proceeding. This count alleges that Trump conspired with others to devise and implement several plans to delay or obstruct the certification of legitimate electoral votes.

(18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), (k).)

Count 3: Obstruction and Attempt to Obstruct an Official Proceeding

Count 3 alleges that the former president and his co-conspirators attempted to, and did, obstruct the January 6th Congressional proceeding through actions that delayed the counting and certifying of electoral votes.

(18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2).)

Count 4: Conspiracy Against Rights (Right to Vote)

The final count charges Trump with conspiring to take away the people's constitutional right to vote and have their vote counted. The indictment claims that the former president and others lied to state officials and pressured them to reject voter ballots, ignore the results of the popular vote, and use false slates of electors.

(18 U.S.C. § 241.)

Trump's Arraignment and Pretrial Rulings in the January 6th Case

Trump was arraigned on August 3, 2023, at a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., where he pleaded not guilty to all four charges. The magistrate judge released Trump without bail but set conditions of release, including that the former president not retaliate against or talk to potential witnesses without their lawyers present.

Protective order. Following the arraignment, prosecutors for the government asked the judge for a protective order to limit what Trump could disclose regarding the evidence in the case. The judge agreed to issue the protective order but took a more limited approach than what the government requested. Ultimately, the judge issued a protective order that applies only to sensitive materials in the case and allows Trump to view this information without his attorneys present. However, Trump's lawyers must make sure Trump doesn't have a smartphone while viewing sensitive materials or access to any recording or copying device.

Recusal. Trump asked the judge to recuse herself from the case. His lawyers argued she made disqualifying statements critical of Trump during sentencing hearings for two January 6th defendants. The judge denied the recusal request.

Immunity. On October 5, 2023, Trump filed a motion to dismiss the indictment based on presidential immunity. Two courts rejected his motion. Trump appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Trump's Immunity Claims Rejected (So Far)

As noted above, Trump filed a motion to dismiss all charges against him based on presidential immunity. He argues that the conduct alleged in the indictment were official acts taken as President and he's entitled to complete immunity. The trial judge denied the motion, and the federal appellate court agreed.

The appellate court ruling was unanimous. It rejected all of Trump's legal arguments, stating: "We cannot accept former President Trump's claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes…." (U.S. v. Trump, No. 23-3228 (Feb. 6, 2024).)

The issue will go to the U.S. Supreme next. The Court has limited its review of the case to one question: "Whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office." (Trump v. U.S., No. 23-939 (Feb. 28, 2024).)

What Happens Next in the January 6th Case?

The trial judge initially set a trial date of March 4, 2024. However, the judge scrapped that date pending the resolution of Trump's immunity claims. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case the week of April 22, 2024.

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear arguments on a related case brought by Joseph Fischer, who participated in the January 6th riots. He argues that charges brought under 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2)—making it a crime to corruptly obstruct, influence, or impede an official proceeding—do not cover the conduct involved on January 6th and should be dismissed. If the Supreme Court sides with Mr. Fischer, Trump will likely seek dismissal of counts 2 and 3 in his criminal case.