“Special counsel Jack Smith, for practical and legal reasons, chose not to indict defeated former president Donald Trump on charges of instigating the violence on Jan. 6, 2021. Smith wants a solid, slimmed-down case without First Amendment complications, which could arise in focusing on Trump’s “Stop the Steal” speech on the Ellipse.
Instead, Smith’s indictment portrays Trump as opportunistically taking advantage of the angry mob. That left many democracy defenders unsettled. Hasn’t violence always been part of Trump’s playbook, and wasn’t Trump egging on the violent mob?
Fortunately, Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis puts the question of Trump’s responsibility for mob violence front and center.
Right up front, the indictment handed down Monday by a grand jury in Atlanta alleges:
Members of the enterprise, including several of the Defendants, falsely accused Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman of committing election crimes in Fulton County, Georgia. These false accusations were repeated to Georgia legislators and other Georgia officials in an effort to persuade them to unlawfully change the outcome of the November 3, 2020, presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. In furtherance of this scheme, members of the enterprise traveled from out of state to harass Freeman, intimidate her, and solicit her to falsely confess to election crimes that she did not commit.
The indictment describes defendants traveling to election worker Ruby Freeman’s home to mislead and intimidate her. Willis alleged Trump defamed Freeman to Georgia officials (claiming she was a “a professional vote scammer and a known political operative” and saying that “Ruby Freeman, her daughter, and others were responsible for fraudulently awarding at least 18,000 ballots to Joseph R. Biden at State Farm Arena in the November 3, 2020, presidential election in Georgia.”) Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that Freeman had stuffed ballot boxes.
Trump tweeted references to a conspiracy about Freeman to his followers, which we know included those who were menacing election workers, making threats and endangering the lives of Freeman and others.
Former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani is also accused of bantering about lies concerning Freeman (who he falsely stated had been “quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine”). These lies reverberated through social media, putting a target on Freeman’s back and helping escalate threats against Georgia officials.
The indictment works to refocus our attention on the mob Trump and Giuliani allegedly tried to incite, to the threats the MAGA horde lobbed toward election officials and others, and to the gripping testimony from Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, at the House Jan. 6 hearings. From everything we’ve seen, these Georgians’ lives were made a living hell.
Without the Georgia case and without Trump identified as the head of the alleged criminal enterprise, there would be no justice for those victims, no accounting for the use of mob violence to corrupt the democratic process.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” and an expert on fascism, told Insider that Trump resorted to inciting the crowd to violence when his other schemes failed “because he truly believes that violence is a way you can change history.” She added, “The thing about autocrats today is that they’re all corrupt, but they’re also violent. They use all of these tools at the same time. So, we can’t isolate one and say that Jan. 6 was just about this or just about that. It was everything. It was a process of months and it culminated in violence.”
The element of thuggishness reflective of authoritarians throughout time and around the globe should not be whitewashed in Trump’s prosecution. It’s easy to make Trump’s alleged attempted coup, run mostly by lawyers and focused on memos distorting and misrepresenting constitutional principles, seem sophisticated, legalistic and without human victims. But, at bottom, the alleged plot rested on the threat of violence both in D.C. and in Georgia.
And let’s not forget this is all part of Trump’s playbook. As Ben-Ghiat recalled in a recent interview, “Since 2015, he [has] used his rallies … as radicalization sites. And over and over, he told his supporters at these rallies that violence was a good way to solve conflict.” She reminded us, “How many times did he say, ‘Oh, you know, in the good old days, we used to be able to punch people, and nothing happened’? So, that discourse of violence, which encouraged Jan. 6, is part of this.”
In December 2020, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling held an emotional news conference, at which he said: “Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia. We’re investigating. … What you don’t have the ability to do — and you need to step up and say this — is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.” He added, “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right.” But the purported criminal enterprise did not stop, either in Georgia or in D.C.
In some legal venue, Trump and his cohorts need to be held accountable for infusing our politics with violence and the threat of violence, for the damage done to Freeman, for the police officers wounded on Capitol Hill, and for the trauma inflicted by the mob they stand accused of orchestrating. That might be a courtroom in Fulton County, Georgia.
Indeed, that would be a service to our democracy and a historical lesson cementing Trump’s legacy as a fascist strongman.“