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Trump returns to D.C. to face latest charges, steps from scene of Capitol Hill riots

Former president enjoys a staggering 37-point lead over closest challenger in Republican race

A phalanx of cameras and cops gathered Thursday to greet Donald Trump outside a D.C. courthouse as the former president returned to face the consequences of his effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump’s motorcade arrived at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse about 45 minutes early, steering clear of the growing crowds out front and entering the building by way of an underground parking garage.

Hundreds of people, most of them either law enforcement officers or media crews, encircled the courthouse for much of the day in anticipation of Trump’s arrival.

The crowds grew steadily in size throughout the afternoon as the former president’s hour of reckoning grew closer, with crowds of onlookers jostling for position alongside camera operators craning for a better view.

Just around the corner loomed the U.S. Capitol, a much quieter place than it was Jan. 6, 2021, the day legions of Trump’s supporters stormed the complex to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

Nearby, the pro-democracy group Public Citizen gathered to mark what executive vice-president Lisa Gilbert called a routine occasion: the justice system working as intended.

“Donald Trump has now been criminally charged for attempting to stop the peaceful transfer of power — and the charges come from the very government that he attempted to take over by force,” Gilbert said.

“There can be no more serious alleged crime than a conspiracy to overturn the very foundation of our democracy: the right of all Americans to cast our vote and have it be counted.”

Work crews spent the night encircling the courthouse with bike rack-style barricades — a far cry from the two-metre fences that were often a fixture in the city during Trump’s presidency.

Much as they did for his previous two arraignments, cable news networks breathlessly covered Trump’s journey from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to an airport in Newark, where his private plane was waiting to spirit him to D.C.

A small battalion of snow plow trucks sat parked along one side street — a common sight in the U.S. at events where extra traffic blockades are needed.

Just a handful of protesters — some supporting Trump, others decidedly not — showed up, only to find themselves vastly outnumbered by members of the media.

The occasional chant of “Lock him up” went up from passersby. One supporter brandished a sign that said, simply, “Trump won.” Around the corner, a man in a jailbird suit languished on a park bench.

And in a park between the courthouse and the neighbouring Canadian Embassy, a protester was putting the finishing touches on a large plywood billboard, painted in the style of Trump’s familiar campaign colours, that bore a single word: “Loser.”

“This is not a celebration; this is, in fact, a reckoning,” said Svante Myrick, president of the pro-democracy group People for the American Way.

“The only thing more dangerous than arraigning a former president for his crimes is allowing a president to attempt to subvert our democracy and then get away with it.”

Trump faces four new charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights.

Tuesday’s 45-page indictment — the third against Trump in just four months — lays out in precise detail a multi-pronged effort to prevent Joe Biden from being confirmed as U.S. president.

Trump is already facing 74 other charges, including 34 felony counts in New York tied to hush-money payments, and 40 more in Florida over classified documents he allegedly stored at his Mar-a-Lago stronghold.

So far, his legal woes appear to have done nothing but help his bid to secure the Republican nomination for president in 2024 — recent polls suggest he’s running away with the race.

The latest case, however, is the one that is likely to resonate the most on the campaign trail, given how it lays out a direct assault on U.S. democracy, said Matthew Lebo, a politics professor at Western University in London, Ont.

But while it’s theoretically possible Trump could withdraw from the race if convicted, previous experience suggests that’s not at all likely, Lebo said.

“So if he goes forward and contests primaries and collects delegates, then he’s going to be the nominee,” he said. “If he’s convicted before the election, I don’t know — I can’t imagine what that means.”

So long as he continues to enjoy the backing of a majority of Republicans in Congress, Lebo said, it’s hard to imagine him going to prison.

“I think he runs, and I think — even if he’s convicted, or is right in the middle of a trial — I think he’s still going to get 40 per cent of the vote,” he said.

“And the Republican Party will not move away from him until he decides he’s done.”

Special counsel Jack Smith used blunt language to describe the stakes when he released the indictment Tuesday.

“The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” Smith said.

“It was fuelled by lies — lies by the defendant, targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government and the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.”

The indictment references six different alleged co-conspirators, but does not disclose their identities. Media reports and known facts point to five names, all of them central players in the effort to overturn the results.

They include Trump ally Rudy Giuliani; lawyer John Eastman, who proposed enlisting then-vice-president Mike Pence to reject Electoral College votes; and campaign lawyer Sidney Powell, who spearheaded a doomed, conspiracy-laden court challenge.

Smith’s indictment also alleges that Trump and his officials had been warned of the risk of violence. A senior adviser told Eastman, one of the architects of the plan, “You’re going to cause riots in the streets.”

Eastman — identified in the indictment only as “Co-Conspirator 2” — responded that “there had previously been points in the nation’s history where violence was necessary to protect the republic.”

The following day, Pence’s lawyer told Eastman that his scheme would result in a “disastrous situation” where the election might “have to be decided in the streets.”

For weeks, Trump has been cultivating moral support among his loyal base by framing the indictment as a politically motivated witch hunt — a drumbeat that continued Wednesday in a flurry of social media posts and fundraising pitches.

So far, it’s proven an effective strategy.

Among Republicans, he currently enjoys a staggering 37-point lead over his closest challenger, the faltering Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a new poll released Monday by Siena College and the New York Times suggests.

DeSantis managed just 17 per cent support with likely Republican primary voters to Trump’s 54 per cent. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and ex-VP Pence all sat a distant third with three per cent each.

Perhaps more surprising, in surveying voters of all political stripes about the 2024 presidential election, that same poll found a dead heat between Trump and incumbent Biden, tied at 43 per cent.

READ ALSO: Trump indicted for trying to overturn 2020 election results