On Tuesday afternoon, after a long and meticulous investigation by federal prosecutors, a grand jury indicted former president Donald Trump on four felony charges related to his role in the failed Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The charges are a watershed moment for the country. They are the first time that prosecutors have sought criminal charges against a former president for actions while he was in office — an unprecedented move commensurate with Trump’s unprecedented misconduct.
By setting aside the enormous political blowback that will probably result from prosecuting Trump, who is again running for president in 2024, the Justice Department has upheld the basic democratic premise that no person is above the law and that the government cannot allow attempts to overthrow it to go unpunished, no matter who makes them.
Most of the indictment covers facts that have already been widely reported in the media, but it makes chilling reading nonetheless. Special counsel Jack Smith describes how Trump knew he had lost the November 2020 election but still conspired in efforts to overturn the result and have himself installed for a second term in office against the wishes of voters. His allies attempted to organize phony “slates” of electors in the Electoral College and have them counted instead of the legitimate electors.
Prosecutors also allege that Trump attempted to improperly have the Justice Department open sham investigations into nonexistent election fraud and influence state legislatures with lies about the election. Then, on Jan. 6, Trump fomented the insurrection by directing a crowd “to go to the Capitol as a means to obstruct the certification and pressure the vice president to fraudulently obstruct the certification.”
Trump was charged with 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 — in this case, the rights of Americans to vote in fair elections and have their votes counted.
This is not the first indictment Trump has faced since leaving office. But it is by far the most important — because by pursuing it, prosecutors are holding him directly accountable for the most egregious actions he took in office.
Trump’s first two indictments — the first filed by the Manhattan district attorney and the second by Smith’s office — were related to a hush-money payment scheme to keep his affair with a porn actor private and his unlawful retention of classified documents after he left the White House, respectively. The latter also included charges of obstruction of justice, and prosecutors recently added new charges alleging that the former president went so far as to ask his staff to destroy potential evidence of wrongdoing by deleting security camera tapes at Mar-a-Lago.
While the previous two sets of criminal charges brought against the former president are significant and certainly important for prosecutors to pursue in order to demonstrate that our justice system, however imperfect, is indeed capable of holding even the most powerful members of society accountable, neither involves conduct while in office, and they do not compare in seriousness to Trump’s attempt to carry out a coup.
Unlike the other investigations and pending trials, the DOJ’s Jan. 6 case is a test of the federal government’s ability to protect and uphold a key pillar of American democracy: respecting the outcomes of free and fair elections. And it will set precedent for how the federal system handles dangerous attacks on elections from would-be despots. It’s true that the investigation in Georgia led by Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, serves a similar purpose — to show that the legal system will not tolerate election subversion and that there are harsh consequences for those who try to hold onto power against the voters’ will — but it’s critical for that message to be delivered from the top down, for every state and local election official to see.
In order to protect the integrity of national elections in particular, the federal government must use every tool at its disposal. The federal justice system must make clear to all future presidents and their cronies that they will, in fact, be punished if they try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. That means holding Trump accountable not just for unrelated or tangential law-breaking that’s easier to prosecute — á la Al Capone — but also specifically for his post-election scheme to deny Joe Biden the presidency that Biden fairly won.
Already, Trump’s political supporters are attacking the charges as politically motivated. Even some Democrats have had qualms about the potentially destabilizing spectacle of a former president who remains popular in his party going on trial. But as this editorial board wrote in 2021, “It cannot be the case that there is no line — no hypothetical act of presidential criminality that would not rise to the level of seriousness that merits setting aside our qualms” about prosecuting former presidents. And with Trump and his supporters opting to flout the country’s longstanding tradition of delivering a peaceful transfer of power, it’s clear that Trump did cross that line. By pursuing this case, the Department of Justice can show Trump and all of his successors in the Oval Office that there will be consequences for doing so.
The Justice Department cannot be accused of having rushed to this decision. It acted carefully and deliberately. These charges will undoubtedly touch off a political maelstrom. But in the face of overwhelming evidence of extraordinary misconduct, the greater risk to the future of our democracy would have been for prosecutors to do nothing.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.