Donald Trump to appear in court over attempt to overturn 2020 US election

Donald Trump is due to appear in court on Thursday after federal prosecutors indicted the ex-president for attempting to overturn the 2020 election, as Democrats and progressives welcomed the charges but many Republicans rallied behind him.

Prosecutors will outline the four conspiracy and obstruction counts Trump faces and a judge will set bail conditions in the latest criminal case before the former president, weeks after he was charged with retaining national defence information.

The judge will also set out a schedule for pretrial motions and discovery. Both sides are likely later to file motions seeking to shape what evidence and legal arguments will be permitted at the eventual trial, which could be many months away.

Many Republicans – elected officials and voters – have unashamedly backed Trump, seeking to portray the charges against him as a selective and politically motivated prosecution and a Democratic plot to derail his 2024 re-election bid.

That pattern largely held after Wednesday’s indictment, which was brought by the special counsel Jack Smith and filed in federal district court in Washington, with most Republicans pivoting to criticise Trump’s successor, Joe Biden.

The House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, called the indictment an attempt “to distract from news” about Republican allegations of corruption involving Hunter Biden, the president’s son, “and attack the frontrunner” to face Biden next year.

The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, Trump’s leading rival for the Republican nomination, said he had yet to read the indictment, but he vowed to “end the weaponisation of the federal government”, suggesting the case was being used to target a political enemy.

DeSantis did not mention Trump by name but promised that if he was elected president he would “ensure a single standard of justice for all Americans”, adding: “One of the reasons our country is in decline is the politicisation of the rule of law.”

The latest charges means the former president has been impeached twice, arrested twice and indicted three times: over attempted election subversion, hush-money payments to a porn actor, and the alleged mishandling of classified documents.

Despite the charges – and the prospect of more to come, over alleged election subversion in Georgia – he leads national Republican polling by more than 30 points. Nothing prevents criminal defendants from campaigning or taking office if they are convicted.

Strategists said that while the indictments could help Trump solidify support with his base and win the Republican nomination, they could prove less helpful in next year’s election, when he will have to win over more sceptical moderates and independents.

Republican condemnation of the former president was rare. Will Hurd, a former Texas congressman, said Trump’s presidential bid was “driven by an attempt to stay out of prison and scam his supporters into footing his legal bills”.

Hurd added: “Furthermore, his denial of the 2020 election results and actions on 6 January show he’s unfit for office.” If Republicans “make the upcoming election about Trump, we are giving Joe Biden another four years in the White House”, he said.

Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president, who refused to bow to pressure not to certify the election results, said the latest indictment was “an important reminder anyone who puts himself over the constitution should never be president of the United States”, adding that Trump’s candidacy meant “more distractions”.

Most, however, implicitly backed the former president, although often without naming him. The South Carolina senator Tim Scott claimed that “Biden’s justice department” was “hunting Republicans, while protecting Democrats”.

Byron Donalds of Florida, a hard-right Trump ally, said Trump was the victim of “selective use of … the federal government” while prosecutors “concoct sweetheart deals for Hunter [Biden], Hillary [Clinton] and the rest of the Democrat darlings”.

Democrat and progressive reactions to the indictment reflected the deep divide in US politics. Nancy Pelosi, a former House speaker who oversaw two Trump impeachments, said the charges outlined “a sinister plot”.

The House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, and the Democratic Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, said Trump’s third indictment “illustrates in shocking detail … a months-long criminal plot led by the former president to defy democracy and overturn the will of the American people”.

Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the latest charges “the most significant [Trump] has yet faced because they address the most serious offense he committed: trying to block the peaceful transfer of power and keep himself in office”.

Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law said the magnitude of the indictment “matches the magnitude of what Trump tried to do, which is to overthrow the constitutional system to stay in office”.

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, of the campaigning group Indivisible, highlighted why Republicans still backed Trump, whom polls put level with Biden if the pair face each other again in 2024.

“Republicans only care about their power,” she said, “and they will stop at nothing to stay in it. Trump is … just the loud, obnoxious tip of the iceberg.”

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