Former President Donald J. Trump was indicted on Tuesday in connection with his widespread efforts to overturn the 2020 election following a sprawling federal investigation into his attempts to cling to power after losing the presidency.
The indictment, filed by the special counsel Jack Smith in Federal District Court in Washington, accuses Mr. Trump of three conspiracies: one to defraud the United States; a second to obstruct an official government proceeding, the certification of the Electoral College vote; and a third to deprive people of a civil right, the right to have their votes counted. Mr. Trump was also charged with a fourth count of obstructing or attempting to obstruct an official proceeding.
“Each of these conspiracies — which built on the widespread mistrust the defendant was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud — targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election,” the indictment said.
The charges signify an extraordinary moment in United States history: a former president, in the midst of a campaign to return to the White House, being charged over attempts to use the levers of government power to subvert democracy and remain in office against the will of voters.
In sweeping terms, the indictment described how Mr. Trump and six co-conspirators employed a variety of means to reverse his defeat in the election almost from the moment that voting ended.
It depicted how Mr. Trump promoted false claims of fraud, sought to bend the Justice Department toward supporting those claims and oversaw a scheme to create false slates of electors pledged to him in states that were actually won by Joseph R. Biden Jr. And it described how he ultimately pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, to use the fake electors to subvert the certification of the election at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, that was cut short by the violence at the Capitol.
The indictment did not name the alleged co-conspirators, but the descriptions of their behavior match publicly known episodes involving prominent people around Mr. Trump.
The behavior of “Co-conspirator 1” appears to align with that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer whom he put in charge of efforts to deny the transfer of power after his main campaign lawyers made clear it was over. Mr. Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert J. Costello, acknowledged in a statement that it “appears that Mayor Giuliani is alleged to be co-conspirator No. 1.”
The description of “Co-conspirator 2” tracks closely with that of John Eastman, a California law professor who served as the architect of the plan to pressure Mr. Pence.
The co-conspirators could be charged at any point, and their inclusion in the indictment — even unnamed — places pressure on them to cooperate with investigators.
Many of the details in the charges were familiar, having appeared either in news accounts or in the work of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6. There were descriptions of Mr. Trump’s attempt to install a loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, who appears to be a co-conspirator in the case, atop the Justice Department and to strong-arm the secretary of state of Georgia into finding him enough votes to win the election in that state.
There were also references to Mr. Trump posting a message on Twitter in mid-December 2020 calling for a “wild” protest in Washington on Jan. 6, and to him pressuring Mr. Pence to try to throw the election his way during the joint session of Congress that day.
But the indictment also contained some snippets of new information, such as a description of Mr. Trump telling Mr. Pence, “You’re too honest,” as the vice president pushed back on Mr. Trump’s pressure to interfere in the certification of Mr. Biden’s victory.
It also included an account of Mr. Trump telling someone who asked if he wanted additional pressure put on Mr. Pence that “no one” else but him needed to speak with the vice president.
Mr. Smith, in drafting his charging document, walked a cautious path in connecting Mr. Trump to the mob attack on the Capitol. The indictment mentioned Mr. Trump’s “exploitation of the violence and chaos” at the building that day, but did not accuse him of inciting the riot.
It also laid out how Mr. Trump was repeatedly told by multiple people, including top officials in his campaign and at the Justice Department, that he had lost the election and that his claims that he had been cheated were false. That sort of evidence could help prosecutors prove their accusations by establishing Mr. Trump’s intent.
Mr. Trump’s constant claims of widespread election fraud “were false, and the defendant knew they were false,” the indictment said, adding that he was told repeatedly that his assertions were untrue.
“Despite having lost, the defendant was determined to remain in power,” the indictment said.
Mr. Trump has been summoned for his initial court appearance in the case on Thursday afternoon before a magistrate judge in Federal District Court in Washington, the special counsel’s office said. Ultimately, a trial date and a schedule for pretrial motions will be set, proceedings that are likely to extend well into the presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer on the case, John Lauro, laid out what appeared to be the beginning of his defense, telling Fox News, “I would like them to try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Donald Trump believed that these allegations” about voter fraud “were false.”
The charges in the case came more than two and a half years after a pro-Trump mob — egged on by incendiary speeches by Mr. Trump and his allies — stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in the worst attack on the seat of Congress since the War of 1812.
They also came a little more than seven months after Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed Mr. Smith, a career federal prosecutor, to oversee both the election tampering and classified documents inquiries into Mr. Trump. They followed a series of high-profile hearings last year by the House Jan. 6 committee, which laid out extensive evidence of Mr. Trump’s efforts to reverse the election results.
Mr. Garland moved to name Mr. Smith as special counsel in November, just days after Mr. Trump declared that he was running for president again.
In a brief appearance before reporters, Mr. Smith set out what he said was the former president’s moral, as well as legal, responsibility for violence at the Capitol, saying the riot was “fueled by lies” — Mr. Trump’s lies.
Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has incorporated attacking the investigations into his campaign messaging and fund-raising. His advisers have been blunt in private conversations that they see his winning the election as crucial to undoing the charges against him.
In a statement, Mr. Trump denounced the indictment.
“Why did they wait two and a half years to bring these fake charges, right in the middle of President Trump’s winning campaign for 2024?” he said, calling it “election interference” and comparing the Biden administration to Nazi Germany.
The judge assigned to Mr. Trump’s case, Tanya S. Chutkan, has been a tough jurist in cases against Jan. 6 rioters — and in a case that involved Mr. Trump directly. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she has routinely issued harsh penalties against people who stormed the Capitol.
She also denied Mr. Trump’s attempt to avoid disclosing documents to the Jan. 6 committee, ordering him to turn over the material and writing, “Presidents are not kings.”
Mr. Trump now faces two separate federal indictments. In June, Mr. Smith brought charges in Florida accusing Mr. Trump of illegally holding on to a highly sensitive trove of national defense documents and then obstructing the government’s attempts to get them back.
The scheme charged by Mr. Smith on Tuesday in the election case played out largely in the two months between Election Day in 2020 and the attack on the Capitol. During that period, Mr. Trump took part in a range of efforts to retain power despite having lost the presidential race.
In addition to federal charges in the election and documents cases, Mr. Trump also faces legal troubles in state courts.
He has been charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office in a case that centers on hush money payments made to the porn actress Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to reverse his election loss are also the focus of a separate investigation by the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga. That inquiry appears likely to generate charges this month.
It seems likely that Mr. Trump will face the prospect of at least three criminal trials next year, even as he is campaigning for the presidency. The Manhattan trial is scheduled to begin in March, while the federal documents case in Florida is set to go to trial in May.
Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.