Holding People Accountable

Heather Cox Richardson

It has been a day full of news, not all of which I will have the space to put into this letter. But before I get to the extraordinary news of tonight’s indictment of former president Trump and 18 others on 41 criminal counts, including racketeering, for their attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, there are two other landmarks to record today.

First, a major legal victory for those combating climate change:

In 1972, after a century of mining, ranching, and farming had taken a toll on Montana, voters in that state added to their constitution an amendment saying that “[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations,” and that the state legislature must make rules to prevent the degradation of the environment. 

In March 2020 the nonprofit public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust filed a lawsuit on behalf of sixteen young Montana residents, arguing that the state’s support for coal, oil, and gas violated their constitutional rights because it created the pollution fueling climate change, thus depriving them of their right to a healthy environment. They pointed to a Montana law forbidding the state and its agents from taking the impact of greenhouse gas emissions or climate change into consideration in their environmental reviews, as well as the state’s fossil fuel–based state energy policy. 

That lawsuit is named Held v. Montanaafter the oldest plaintiff, Rikki Held, whose family’s 7,000-acre ranch was threatened by a dwindling water supply, and both the state and a number of officers of Montana. The state of Montana contested the lawsuit by denying that the burning of fossil fuels causes climate change—despite the scientific consensus that it does—and denied that Montana has experienced changing weather patterns. Through a spokesperson, the governor said: “We must focus on American innovation and ingenuity, not costly, expansive government mandates, to address our changing climate.”

Today, U.S. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found for the young Montana residents, agreeing that they have “experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the State’s failure to consider [greenhouse gas emissions] and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness.” She found that their “injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.”  

The plaintiffs sought an acknowledgement of the relationship of fossil fuels to climate change and a declaration that the state’s support for fossil fuel industries is unconstitutional. Such a declaration would create a foundation for other lawsuits in other states. 

Second, an unprecedented and dangerous situation in the U.S. military: Thanks to the hold by Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL, although the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler pointed out a few days ago that Tuberville actually lives in Florida) on Senate-confirmed military promotions, the U.S. Navy today became the third branch of the U.S. armed forces, after the Army and the Marine Corps, without a confirmed leader. Tuberville Is holding more than 300 senior military positions empty, including the top posts in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. He claims he is doing this in opposition to the military’s abortion policy.

And finally, third: tonight, just before midnight, the state of Georgia indicted former president Donald J. Trump and 18 others for multiple crimes committed in that state as they tried to steal the 2020 presidential election. A special-purpose grand jury made up of citizens in Fulton County, Georgia, examined evidence and heard from 75 witnesses in the case, and issued a report in January that recommended indictments. A regular grand jury took the final report of the special grand jury into consideration and brought an indictment.  

“Trump and the other Defendants charged in this Indictment refused to accept that Trump lost” the 2020 presidential election, the indictment reads, ”and they knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump. That conspiracy contained a common plan and purpose to commit two or more acts of racketeering activity in Fulton County, Georgia, elsewhere in the State of Georgia, and in other states.” 

The indictment alleges that those involved in the “criminal enterprise” “constituted a criminal organization whose members and associates engaged in various related criminal activities including, but not limited to, false statements and writings, impersonating a public officer, forgery, filing false documents, influencing witnesses, computer theft, computer trespass, computer invasion of privacy, conspiracy to defraud the state, acts involving theft, and perjury.” 

That is, while claiming to investigate voter fraud, they allegedly committed election fraud. 

And that effort has run them afoul of a number of laws, including the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which is broader than federal anti-racketeering laws and carries a mandatory five-year prison term. 

Those charged fall into several categories. Trump allies who operated out of the White House include lawyers Rudy Giuliani (who recently conceded in a lawsuit that he lied about Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss having stuffed ballot boxes),  John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, Jeffrey Clark, Jenna Ellis, and Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. 

Those operating in Georgia to push the scheme to manufacture a false slate of Trump electors to challenge the real Biden electors include lawyer Ray Stallings Smith III, who tried to sell the idea to legislators; Philadelphia political operative Michael Roman; former Georgia Republican chair David James Shafer, who led the fake elector meeting; and Shawn Micah Tresher Still, currently a state senator, who was the secretary of the fake elector meeting. 

Those trying to intimidate election worker and witness Ruby Freeman include Stephen Cliffgard Lee, a police chaplain from Illinois; Harrison William Prescott Floyd, executive director of Black Voices for Trump; and Trevian C. Kutti, a publicist for the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. 

Those allegedly stealing data from the voting systems in Coffee County, Georgia, and spreading it across the country in an attempt to find weaknesses in the systems that might have opened the way to fraud include Trump lawyer Sidney Powell; former Coffee County Republican Committee chair Cathleen Alston Latham; businessman Scott Graham Hall; and Coffee County election director Misty Hampton, also known as Emily Misty Hayes.  

The document also referred to 30 unindicted co-conspirators.

Trump has called the case against him in Georgia partisan and launched a series of attacks on Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Today, Willis told a reporter who asked about Trump’s accusations of partisanship: “I make decisions in this office based on the facts and the law. The law is completely nonpartisan. That’s how decisions are made in every case. To date, this office has indicted, since I’ve been sitting as the district attorney, over 12,000 cases. This is the eleventh RICO indictment. We follow the same process. We look at the facts. We look at the law. And we bring charges.”

The defendants have until noon on August 25 to surrender themselves to authorities.

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