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Trump faces 4 criminal charges related to attempts to overturn the 2020 election

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Former President Trump is set to be arraigned in a Washington, D.C., federal court this afternoon. He'll be there to enter pleas on four criminal charges following a federal investigation into attempts to overturn the 2020 election result. UCLA law professor Rick Hasen directs the Safeguarding Democracy Project. He calls this latest case against Trump the most important in our nation's history. He joins us now from Los Angeles. Professor, why is it the most important in our nation's history?

RICK HASEN: Well, you know, if you compare it to the other cases - the cases involving classified documents or potentially falsifying business records - I mean, those are serious cases, especially the classified documents one, but they don't go to the heart of American democracy. If the allegations in the complaint are true, Trump tried to subvert the election results in 2020 to turn himself from an election loser to an election winner. If there's no deterrence of that, then we really are not going to have a secure democracy going forward.

MARTÍNEZ: If somehow this case doesn't get to trial or if Trump becomes president and makes the case go away, can our democracy survive it?

HASEN: Well, you know, democracy is not an on-off switch, but I think it would put a lot of stress on our system in two ways. First, you know, it would demonstrate that somebody could try to steal an election and get away with it. And second, if Trump were returned to power, there's lots of things he could do to try to undermine our democracy going forward.

And already there's talk about the kinds of things he would do in a second term that might undermine the civil service, the Department of Justice - might sic the Department of Justice on his enemies. I mean, there's all kinds of things that could happen aside from just not deterring Trump if there were a second Trump term and he had already been accused of these crimes and it not fully been considered by a jury and by the legal system.

MARTÍNEZ: So what kind of democracy would be left if that happens?

HASEN: Well, you know, if you look around the rest of the world, you see that there are places where you wouldn't say that democracy is completely gone, but it's an illiberal democracy. It's a place where maybe there's less of a free press, where the justice system is less independent, where someone holds onto power for longer than their original term. I mean, there's all kinds of ways - stops along the way towards ending a democracy, and hopefully we won't be going down that road.

MARTÍNEZ: Yesterday, Congressman Adam Schiff told the show that he thought special counsel Jack Smith was conservative in his charging decisions. Was he conservative? Could he have gone further?

HASEN: I think he could have gone further. One of the things that was not in there was any claim of seditious conspiracy or of incitement. You know, there's been a lot of talk about whether Trump has a First Amendment right to say that the election was stolen. And the complaint itself, the indictment itself, says Trump has that right. This - these charges are charges of conspiracy. It's about actions rather than about his words. And, you know, you can believe whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. But when you engage in criminal activity, even if you do it with words, you can be prosecuted. And it seems to me this is about as conservative of a charging - a set of charges as you could see given the facts of this case.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think he factored in politics?

HASEN: Well, I think he factored in politics in the sense that he wants to bring strong charges because he knows that there's a risk to the system if Trump is put on trial and exonerated. That would also send a message about what the country is willing to accept in terms of threats to democracy.

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, this is very unique, right, Professor? I mean, we've never experienced anything like this.

HASEN: I do think, you know, people overuse the term unprecedented. But, really, it's hard to think of any point in American history where you've had this, multiple criminal indictments against a leading candidate who's running for president, and some of those charges related to trying to manipulate the results of the last election. I mean, this is not what we expect to see in the United States of America.

MARTÍNEZ: Election law expert Rick Hasen directs the Safeguarding Democracy Project at UCLA. Thank you very much.

HASEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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