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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democracy ‘hangs in the balance’ of Trump indictment case, local experts warn

Former President Donald Trump, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, arrives at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., en route to his arraignment in federal court on Thursday.  (New York Times)

On the day of Washington’s state primary elections, news from the other Washington about former president Donald Trump’s third indictment this year sparked intense political strife and discourse in the Northwest and across the country.

Local political and legal voices shared their takes and concerns surrounding the indictment – including speculations on what it could mean for the future – with The Spokesman-Review. Some experts believe the future of U.S. democracy hinges on the outcome of a trial.

Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 general election in three criminal plots: conspiring to defraud the U.S., conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiring against people’s rights.

Some experts warned of the continued mobilization of white nationalist extremist groups around the country with ties to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and their continued threats of political violence.

Trump remained the Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential election this week.

‘Lawful and appropriate means’

University of Idaho law professor Richard Seamon called the 45-page indictment outlining the alleged crimes a “bombshell.”

At the center of debate around the criminal charges lies the U.S. Department of Justice. The indictment alleges Trump put pressure on the Justice Department to subscribe to his claims of a stolen election. Now that President Joe Biden is in office, some supporters of Trump have accused the Department of Justice of being involved in persecution, leading to claims that the federal agency is politically corrupt.

“One hopes that, whether there’s a conviction or acquittal, there will be efforts to redouble the public perception of the Justice Department as nonpartisan,” Seamon said.

What could those efforts to rebuild trust look like? Seamon said more attention might be directed toward the appointment of principal officers in the Justice Department.

“There are going to be efforts to make sure to the extent possible that these folks do not have political allegiances that prevent them from administering justice impartially,” he said.

Attempted changes in the law could also be coming, Seamon said. He speculated there might be a push to put political protections in place for Justice Department employees, such as the attorney general.

“It’s usually thought that the attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president – meaning the president can remove the attorney general without any restrictions on the reasons,” Seaman said. “So any kind of attempt by Congress to protect the attorney general are going to run into some potential Constitutional problems.”

If Trump is convicted, Seamon said future presidents will “bend over backward” to avoid appointing somebody who could be regarded as a “political hack.” But if the former president is acquitted, his claims that the prosecution against him was political will be largely accepted, according to Seamon.

Legal experts believe the trial outcome will be determined by the jury’s perceived answers to one question: Did Trump genuinely believe the election was stolen from him?

If Trump’s attorneys convince the jury to believe the former president did not know the information he was spreading was false, then it will be hard for prosecutors to convict him, Seamon said.

“It’s not enough that he made false statements about illegal votes being cast and that kind of thing,” Seamon said. “If he genuinely believed what he was saying, then a lot of these criminal charges are going to fail. The prosecutor must prove that Trump knew what he was saying was false.”

Seamon also added that Trump’s defense attorneys will be limited by Trump’s vestment in his public perception.

“I don’t think he’s going to be happy about the idea of a defense saying, essentially, that he was crazy and totally isolated from reality,” Seamon said. “But if he really believed that the election was stolen – as crazy as that belief might have been – you can’t convict him.”

Prosecutors will allege at the trial that “almost everyone” Trump trusted for advice told him the election was not stolen, Seamon said.

The indictment addresses questions of free speech that far-right conspiracy theorists have raised surrounding Trump’s ability to speak about the election.

“The Defendant had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election and even to claim, falsely, that there had been outcome-determinative fraud during the election and that he had won,” reads the court document. “He was also entitled to formally challenge the results of the election through lawful and appropriate means, such as by seeking recounts or audits of the popular vote in states or filing lawsuits challenging ballots and procedures.”

Trump did formally challenge the results. Federal and state judges dismissed more than 50 lawsuits presented by Trump and his allies challenging the election or its outcome. The indictment described the numerous attempts as “uniformly unsuccessful.”

‘Rumblings of a war’

“This is not an indictment about what has been said, it is an indictment about conduct,” said Devin Burghart, the executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

The institute Burghart heads tracks far-right and white nationalist extremist groups across the country. Burghart said such groups have only picked up steam since the Jan. 6 insurrection, spreading conspiracy theories that the indictment is a smear campaign by the federal government. Trump’s presidency and legal troubles, he said, have fueled a fire of misinformation and political violence.

“This indictment really cements Trump’s status as a martyr,” Burghart said. “That’s really important. Now you have inside the political far-right rumblings of a war. In this case a civil war.”

Time will tell what happens when the case goes to trial, Burghart said. It is too soon to gauge what reactions will look like on the ground in the Northwest or in Washington, D.C.

“Right now, there’s still a sense of disbelief,” he said. “They’re still in the denial phase. That will change as the trial sets in.”

The status of United States democracy “hangs in the balance” of the indictment’s outcome, Burghart said.

“If people are allowed to continue to engage in acts designed to overturn a free and fair election, then democracy will have perished,” he said. “An acquittal could mean the far-right will shift their focus to the 2024 election – re-electing Trump and other politicians to remove civil and human rights.”

‘A long history of white nationalism’

The Jan. 6, 2021, storm of the U.S. Capitol by supporters sparked what would become the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history. More than 1,000 participants and conspirators have faced criminal charges since the attack that led to the deaths of five people and caused nearly $3 billion in property damage.

Twenty-six people from Washington state faced federal charges for alleged involvement in the Capitol breach, including Spokane resident Joshua Edward Johnson, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding and was sentenced last month to two years in prison.

Six people from Idaho faced federal charges from their alleged involvement in the insurrection, including Michael Anthony Pope of Sandpoint.

“The Northwest has a long history of white nationalism and also has a long history of communities successfully pushing back against white nationalism. Historically, the Northwest has been a place that they’ve looked to and organized in,” said Lindsay Schubiner, director of programs for Western States Center, a Portland-based organization that tracks right-wing extremism.

Schubiner said she wanted to emphasize the region has built “incredible knowledge and experience” to take clear action to protect against white nationalism and anti-democracy movements.

Trump’s presidency “threw open the door” for upticks in harassment and political violence by far-right groups, Schubiner said. And she is seeing more and more of it in her work.

“The result is an enormous chilling effect on who feels safe to run for office,” she said. “With an impact particularly on women of color in office. There are unfortunately a lot of examples of people who have felt unsafe in elected positions.”

Extremism shows up locally in challenges to school curriculums with accurate teaching of race and racism in American history, Schubiner said. Attempts to ban books in school libraries and exclude students in the LGBTQIA+ community are other examples of far-right influence.

In Schubiner’s eyes, the indictment symbolizes a step toward legal and political accountability for extremist groups who target democratic institutions. But it’s only one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

“What will actually determine the future for our democracy is whether all of society comes together and rejects white nationalism, rejects anti-democracy movements, rejects the kind of bigotry and extremism that resulted in the insurrection and has continued to erode rights for communities,” she said. “This is a social, political and cultural problem. But that means it also has social, political and cultural solutions.”