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“These are very serious charges”: Experts say Michigan fake Trump electors face “open and shut” case

The charges Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced on Tuesday against the 16 fake electors who signed certificates falsely claiming then-President Donald Trump had won Michigan in the 2020 election are “very serious” and present a significant deterrent to future potential “bad actors,” several legal experts said.

As CNN reported, the 16 individuals were hit with multiple felony charges “for their role in the alleged false electors scheme following the 2020 U.S. presidential election,” Nessel’s office announced. The charges include election law forgery, which carries a five-year maximum prison sentence, and conspiracy to commit forgery, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The charges filed by Nessel are separate from special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in power after the 2020 election as well as Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis’ probe into the former president’s alleged 2020 election interference in the state.

Former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor, praised Nessel for seeking to hold the fake Trump electors “accountable.”

“This crime is an affront to democracy,” McQuade wrote on Twitter.

Former federal prosecutor Laura Coates emphasized on CNN Tuesday evening the gravity of the charges against the Michigan 16, both for the false electors themselves and for American democracy.

“Remember, in states, these are the ones whose electors, based on the popular state votes, will then elect a President of the United States,” Coates said. “It relies on faith, it relies on credibility that what a voter believes will happen once their vote is cast, and they’re compiled, will actually happen.”

“These are very serious charges,” Coates continued. “Forgery, the uttering and publishing — a fancy way of saying you’ve endeavored to pass it off as a real thing. This goes to the core of our democracy.”

What’s notable about the Michigan attorney general’s indictment, she added, is that “this is a state-level prosecution and happening there as opposed to waiting for what’s happening for say, a Jack Smith or special counsel or DOJ… It tells you how wide-ranging it is, how specific it is, and how, for many people, the idea of what happened three years ago is not in the rearview mirror. It’s very much ahead of the attorney general’s focus.”

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and legal analyst, also noted on social media late Tuesday that Nessel’s indictment against the false electors could be a deterrent for other potential “bad actors,” arguing that the charges are “more important than you might realize.”

“Our electoral system is run at the state level, and as we saw in the last election, there is room for bad actors to get to subvert the process. These charges will be a real deterrent,” Mariotti wrote on Twitter to open a thread detailing the legal and social implications of the indictments.

He clarified that the indicted individuals weren’t billionaires nor people who could otherwise glean fame or funds from the swath of charges against them but rather Republican operatives “who will be devastated by an indictment like a typical person is.”

“Getting indicted isn’t fun. It is a stressful, costly, and humiliating experience,” Mariotti continued. “Just like the charges of individual January 6th insurrectionists, these charges may deter foot soldiers who would consider joining an effort to overturn the *next* election.”

“So they matter more than you think. A lot of Trump’s followers stayed home when he urged them to turn out after he was indicted. The indictments of January 6th insurrectionists had something to do with that. Charges against fake electors could have a similar effect,” he concluded.

New York University law professor and former Pentagon special counsel Ryan Goodman argued that it will be next to impossible for the Michigan 16 to defend against the charges because the documents they’re accused of forging also include a falsehood that they “convened and organized in the State Capitol.”

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“It’s a detail that matters,” Goodman told CNN. “It mattered to the Trump campaign lawyer, and he said this is a problem. He is mapping out the secret memo how they can do these false electors across the seven states. Michigan may have a problem because it’s a legal requirement that you have to convene in the State Capitol. That’s why they obviously put it in their declaration that we are convened in the State Capitol. And it is just a falsehood.”

That lie is significant, Goodman added, because, “they can say, ‘oh, we thought Trump won the election and that’s why we did this.’ Did you think you were in the Capitol? You are not in the Capitol, you were in the basement of the GOP headquarters in Lansing. That’s where you were when you convened. It’s a false statement that they submitted to state and federal authorities that is almost an open-and-shut forgery.”

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Goodman and CNN legal analyst Norm Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the first impeachment of Trump, praised Nessel for the precision of her indictment against the fake electors, which they argued left “a clear lane” for Smith in his federal probe.

“The charges in Michigan will surely meet criticism on all sides. Some will say the case is not broad or bold enough, that Mr. Trump and the other alleged national ringleaders should have been charged as well,” they wrote. “Others will say Ms. Nessel cast too wide a net, pulling in low-level party functionaries who did not know better. We think those critiques are misconceived.

“Ms. Nessel got it just right, prosecuting crimes firmly within her jurisdiction, while opening the way for federal authorities to net even bigger fish,” they said, later noting the importance of her being able to establish intent in order to prove the case they dubbed “far more egregious” than most of the Michigan attorney general’s other prosecutions.

“If Ms. Nessel can move against these individuals in Michigan, Mr. Smith can and should do the same against the ringleaders,” they added. “Together, they can hold both the foot soldiers and their organizers accountable for their actions leading up to the Capitol riot.”

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