By Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump is due to appear in court on Thursday to face charges he led a wide-ranging conspiracy built on lies to overturn the 2020 presidential election, culminating in a violent attack on the seat of American democracy.
Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is scheduled to appear in a magistrate’s courtroom at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) in Washington, D.C., half a mile (1 km) from the U.S. Capitol, the building his supporters stormed on Jan. 6, 2021, to try to stop Congress from certifying his defeat.
In a 45-page indictment on Tuesday, Special Counsel Jack Smith accused Trump and his allies of promoting false claims that the election was rigged, pressuring state and federal officials to alter the results and assembling fake slates of electors to try to wrest electoral votes from Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump faces four counts, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S., to deprive citizens of their right to have their votes counted and to obstruct an official proceeding. The most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
In a series of posts on his social media site, Trump framed the indictment as a contrivance to derail his campaign, while his campaign issued a statement comparing the Biden administration to fascist regimes.
The indictment is the third in four months for Trump. He has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he retained classified documents after leaving office and New York state charges that he falsified documents in connection with hush money payments to a porn star.
Trump may soon face more charges in Georgia, where a state prosecutor is investigating his attempts to overturn the election there. The Atlanta-area prosecutor, Fani Willis, has said she will file indictments by mid-August.
Despite his legal entanglements, Trump leads a field of rivals seeking the 2024 Republican nomination. Polls show Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a distant second among Republican voters, many of whom have embraced Trump’s assertion that he is the victim of a Democratic witch hunt.
Trump’s standing with Republican voters has risen since his first indictment earlier this year in New York.
The vast majority of Republican leaders, including several competing with Trump for the White House, have either defended him or avoided direct criticism, instead accusing the Biden administration of weaponizing the Justice Department against a political foe.
Law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service and the D.C. police department, said extra security measures were in place. Some additional fencing was erected outside the courthouse, but other than waiting media few people were gathered early Thursday.
A spokesperson said Trump would fly to Washington from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Thursday and land around an hour before his scheduled court appearance.
‘YOU’RE TOO HONEST’
Many of the allegations in Tuesday’s indictment had been well documented in media reports and the investigation conducted by a U.S. House select committee.
But the indictment featured some details that were not widely known, including several based on grand jury testimony and contemporaneous notes from former Vice President Mike Pence, who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination.
The indictment describes a phone call in which Pence told Trump there was no legal basis for the theory that Pence could block certification of the election.
“You’re too honest,” Trump responded, according to prosecutors.
Although Pence repeatedly told Trump he lacked the authority to reject electoral votes from certain states, Trump kept repeating the claim.
On Jan. 6, as he spoke to his supporters before they attacked the Capitol, Trump said: “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.” Some rioters at the Capitol later chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!”
Far from deterred by the violence, Trump and an unnamed co-conspirator kept calling Republican members of Congress hours after the riot had ended, still intent on blocking certification, the indictment said.
“We need you, our Republican friends, to just try to slow it down,” the co-conspirator said in a voicemail to one U.S. senator, according to prosecutors. The indictment’s description of the co-conspirator makes clear it was Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s former personal attorney.
Pence was one of the few prominent Republicans to criticize Trump on Tuesday, saying that “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen, Andrew Goudsward, Tim Reid, John O’Connell and Patrick McFarland; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)