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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as president in Washington, on Jan. 6, 2021.Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

Donald Trump has been criminally indicted for orchestrating a plot to overturn his 2020 election loss and inciting a mob of supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, the most serious charges that the former president has yet faced.

At the behest of special counsel Jack Smith, a Washington grand jury laid four charges Tuesday, accusing Mr. Trump of conspiring to defraud the United States, obstruct an official proceeding and thwart the right to vote, and of disrupting Congress’s attempt to certify the election.

The indictment lands a little more than a year before Mr. Trump attempts to reclaim the White House, plunging the world’s most powerful country into the unprecedented situation of prosecuting a top presidential contender for seeking to overthrow the constitutional system he seeks to lead. It’s the third set of charges to hit Mr. Trump this year.

The 45-page indictment accuses Mr. Trump of putting pressure on state officials, the Department of Justice and then-vice-president Mike Pence to help him throw out Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory. The scheme revolved around assembling “fraudulent” slates of Republican electors in states won by Mr. Biden. When the plot failed, Mr. Trump triggered the insurrection in Congress.

Mr. Trump knew that his claims Democrats had stolen the election were false, the indictment charges, because numerous close advisers repeatedly told him so, but continued pushing them as a means to “obstruct and defeat” the democratic transfer of power.

“The attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021 was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” Mr. Smith said during a brief statement at the Justice Department Tuesday evening. “It was fuelled by lies – lies by the defendant, targeted at disrupting a bedrock function of the nation’s government.”

Analysis: Trump indictment over 2020 election is shocking, but may come without political consequences

In a post on his Truth Social platform, Mr. Trump called Mr. Smith “Deranged” and accused him of trying to “interfere with the Presidential Election of 2024.” Mr. Trump is scheduled to surrender at a Washington court on Thursday at 4 p.m. ET to be arrested and arraigned.

Mr. Trump, the only former U.S. president ever to be criminally charged, has previously been indicted in two other cases: one by Mr. Smith for absconding with nuclear secrets and other classified documents and obstructing government efforts to get them back, and another at the state level in New York for paying off a porn star to cover up an alleged extramarital affair.

In Georgia, meanwhile, prosecutors are expected to decide this month whether to bring further criminal charges related to the election.

But Tuesday’s indictment, the culmination of 2½ years’ worth of investigations, is almost certain to overshadow them all in its scope.

Mr. Smith accuses Mr. Trump of “perpetrating three criminal conspiracies” by attempting to meddle in the election process, shut down Congress’s certification of the vote on Jan. 6 and “disenfranchise millions of voters.” Mr. Trump’s efforts focused on seven states Mr. Biden had won: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In Arizona, Mr. Trump and one of his advisers, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, tried to persuade the Republican House Speaker to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory, despite admitting they had no proof of fraud. He threatened Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, with criminal prosecution if he didn’t “find” enough votes to change the election result. Mr. Trump also met at the White House with Michigan Republican legislators, and repeatedly texted them afterward, to urge them to block Mr. Biden’s victory. All of these officials refused.

Mr. Trump and several others – including lawyer John Eastman, with some help from Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – then tried to assemble the slates of fake electors. The idea was to get legislatures, Mr. Pence or Congress to substitute these electors for the real ones, tipping the composition of the U.S. Electoral College in Mr. Trump’s favour.

During this time, Mr. Trump also repeatedly demanded that the Department of Justice falsely tell state governments that there was reason to believe the election had been stolen. One Justice official, Jeffrey Clark, tried to implement the plan for Mr. Trump, but was ultimately blocked by his superiors.

After Mr. Pence also rebuffed Mr. Trump’s entreaties, Mr. Trump called his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6, when Congress was set to meet: “Be there, will be wild!” he tweeted. In his speech to them that day, Mr. Trump exhorted the crowd to descend on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”

“The Defendant made multiple knowingly false statements integral to his criminal plans to defeat the federal government function, obstruct the certification, and interfere with others’ right to vote,” the indictment says, adding that he “directed the crowd in front of him to go to the Capitol as a means to obstruct the certification and pressure the Vice President.”

Throughout the riot, the indictment says, Mr. Trump repeatedly refused requests by his advisers to call off the insurrectionists. Instead, Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Eastman spent part of the afternoon and evening trying to call legislators to persuade them to throw out Mr. Biden’s electoral votes. Only late in the afternoon did Mr. Trump ask his supporters via video to go home, in a message in which he also called them “special” and said the election was “stolen.”

On several occasions, Mr. Trump’s allies, including then-attorney-general Bill Barr, the White House counsel’s office, Mr. Meadows and members of the presidential campaign team, debunked various aspects of the election fraud claims, the indictment says.

In an e-mail, one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers referred to the claims of election-rigging as “all just conspiracy” theories “beamed down from the mothership.”

Even Mr. Trump at one point privately described Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist who pushed outlandish claims that voting machines had been rigged against Mr. Trump, as “crazy.” When Mr. Pence refused to help Mr. Trump overturn the election, Mr. Trump allegedly told him “you’re too honest.”

“These claims were false, and the defendant knew that they were false,” the indictment says.

The timing of the charges means they will almost certainly not be resolved before the 2024 election, in which Mr. Trump is the runaway favourite for the Republican nomination. It raises the prospect that he will be battling in court even as he takes to the campaign trail. He has also not ruled out the possibility of attempting to pardon himself if he wins.

Attorney-General Merrick Garland has been criticized by legal scholars for the apparent slowness of the investigation into Mr. Trump. But he has sought to project an air of impartiality. Things appear to have begun moving much more swiftly after he brought in Mr. Smith last fall in a bid to give the probe some independence from the Justice Department.

Mr. Trump has already been impeached twice, including once over the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, and a legislative committee investigation last year uncovered much of the evidence now in the indictment.

The FBI has charged more than 1,000 people in connection with storming the Capitol, of whom almost 600 have pleaded guilty and nearly 100 have been convicted at trial of a range of offences.

Mr. Smith said Tuesday that his investigation is not yet finished, suggesting that he may charge others in connection with Mr. Trump’s wider plot to overturn the vote, such as through the fake elector scheme.

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