- Conspiracy to defraud the United States could apply to allegations Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election.
- The House panel that investigated the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, reported potential witness tampering to the Justice Department during hearings last year.
WASHINGTON − The Department of Justice target letter sent to Donald Trump listed categories of charges he could potentially face, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to people familiar with the letter.
Trump announced Tuesday that he had been notified that he was a target of special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into alleged election fraud.
Experts said the conspiracy charge could be an umbrella covering various parts of Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election. ABC News reported that witness tampering was also mentioned as a potential statute that is being examined as part of the investigation. The House committee that investigated the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021 in a December report listed witness tampering as a potential charge in a referral it made to the DOJ.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letter.
What does conspiracy to defraud the United States mean?
The House panel recommended charges against Trump for allegedly trying to defraud the United States based on obstructing the congressional count of Electoral College votes, pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence into rejecting electors for President Joe Biden and recruiting alternate Republican electors.
Norm Eisen, a lawyer who served on the House panel investigating Trump’s first impeachment and who analyzed the evidence in the latest investigation, called the evidence “powerful and overwhelming.”
“Trump led an alleged conspiracy from the Oval Office by working with his campaign, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, the RNC and many others to procure fake electoral certificates across the nation as well as to push other schemes to overturn the election,” Eisen said. “And those fake certificates and other schemes were serious alleged frauds because they attempted to fraudulently perpetuate Trump in power and prevent the rightful winner from taking office.”
The counting of electoral votes was temporarily suspended while a mob of Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol. Trump had told supporters during a rally earlier in the day near the White House that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.”
“We fight like hell,” Trump added. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
But Trump didn’t go to the Capitol and he pointed out he also told the crowd to behave peacefully.
Trump urged Pence, in his role as Senate president, to recognize the alternate electors in seven pivotal states that President Joe Biden won. Trump’s campaign recruited Republican electors to meet parallel to officially certified electors on Dec. 14, 2020, and to sign documents falsely claiming they were duly elected.
In reviewing the strategy as part of a civil lawsuit, U.S. District Judge David Carter ruled the president and one of his lawyers, John Eastman, “more likely than not” acted unlawfully. Carter called the strategy a “coup in search of a legal theory.”
“The illegality of the plan was obvious,” Carter wrote.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced forgery and conspiracy charges Tuesday against 16 alternate electors in that state. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating potential election fraud.
Trump’s campaign lawyers said they organized alternate electors in case his legal challenges were successful and courts overturned state results.
In another facet of the plan, Trump also called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, and urged him to “find” 11,780 votes to tip the results of the election from Biden to him.
But Raffensperger told him officials found no widespread election fraud.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and described his call as “perfect.”
What could have sparked a charge of witness tampering?
Members of the House investigative panel reported that Trump made numerous efforts to contact witnesses before hearings last year.
One member, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said the panel took “any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously” and referred incidents to the Justice Department.
Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide to then-chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified her initial lawyer paid by Trump allies encouraged her not to reveal all that she knew to the panel. She said she was encouraged to remain loyal to Trump World.
“They don’t know what you know,” Hutchinson quoted her lawyer, Stefan Passantino, telling her about committee lawmakers. “’I don’t recall’ is an entirely acceptable response to this.”
Hutchinson later provided bombshell testimony about White House meetings to overturn the election, Trump’s preparations for Jan. 6 and what happened that day.
In another case, the committee quoted a witness saying an unnamed caller said Trump was aware of a deposition scheduled the next day. “He knows you’re a team player, you’re loyal, and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition,” the witness told the committee.
Brandon Van Grack, a former senior Justice Department lawyer and prosecutor, said witness or informant tampering is more surprising and a potential wild card in the case. He said it’s a reminder of how the public often has no idea what kind of evidence, witnesses and information are being developed during such top-secret and highly sensitive Justice Department investigations.
“I hadn’t seen speculation on that one,” Van Grack said. “And it’s not a surprise that it is a surprise because if you’re talking about witness tampering, it’s possible that we may not know about which witness was tampered with.”
Trump allies find it ‘odd’ only he got a target letter
A spokesman for one of Trump’s personal lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said he hadn’t received a target letter and that speculation he had “flipped” to testify against Trump is wrong.
“In order to ‘flip,’ on President Trump—as so many in the anti-Trump media are fantasizing over—Mayor Giuliani would’ve had to commit perjury because all the information he has regarding tjis case points to President Trump’s innocence,” said Ted Goodman, a political adviser to Giuliani.
Tim Parlatore, a former Trump lawyer, told CNN that it was odd to send a target letter only to Trump and not others allegedly involved in the conspiracy.
“It’s an odd use of target letters,” Parlatore said. “So in some ways it looks like a publicity stunt.”