For two and a half years, most of Donald J. Trump’s allies in the sprawling effort to overturn the 2020 election escaped consequences, continuing to try to undermine President Biden’s legitimacy by spreading false claims about voting machines, mail ballots and rigged elections.
Now the legal repercussions are arriving.
Last month, three leading election deniers in Michigan were charged with felonies over a scheme to surreptitiously obtain election machines and inspect them in parking lots and hotels. Soon after, Mr. Trump himself was indicted in a major federal investigation of his actions surrounding the 2020 election.
Then, in the longest reach of the law yet, Mr. Trump and 18 others were criminally charged on Monday over their attempts to interfere with the outcome of the election in Georgia.
The broad indictment includes some of the most prominent figures in the movement to subvert the election: Rudolph W. Giuliani, who presented state legislatures with what he said was evidence of fraud and has continued to make such claims as recently as this month; John C. Eastman, a lawyer and an architect of the scheme to create bogus slates of pro-Trump electors; David Shafer, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, who filed 16 fake electors; and Sidney Powell, a lawyer behind some of the wildest claims about election machines.
“The attacks on the election system were so brazen,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Some accountability,” she added, would “make people think twice before pushing the envelope and trying to break the law.”
Despite the flood of criminal charges, election denialism persists in American politics. Many of the 147 Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the election were re-elected, and Mr. Trump has made false election claims central to his campaign to take back the White House. In a post on his social media site on Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump pledged to unveil a “report” next week on “election fraud” in Georgia. (Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, among others, have said they did nothing wrong and have cast the charges as politically motivated.)
It is still far from clear whether Mr. Trump and his allies who face charges will ultimately be convicted. But the legal threat may force Trump allies to think twice in the future about repeating their more drastic actions — tampering with election machines, organizing the fake elector scheme, filing reams of frivolous lawsuits.
In addition to the criminal charges, several lawyers who pushed baseless election claims in court are facing disbarment. And Fox News was forced to pay $787.5 million to settle a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of misinformation about the 2020 election.
One sign that prosecutions can act as a deterrent has already surfaced. More than 1,100 people were arrested after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, according to Justice Department records. More than 630 have pleaded guilty to various charges, and about 110 have been convicted at trial. Almost 600 have been sentenced and, of those, about 370 have served some amount of time behind bars.
Legal experts say those convictions are a key reason that recent provocations by Mr. Trump after his series of indictments have not resulted in mass protests or violence.
“The federal government has made a concerted effort to investigate and prosecute people who stormed the Capitol,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. “And I think we’ve seen when Trump tried to rally people in Manhattan or in Florida, not only were the crowds small, but a lot of right-wing influencers were out there telling people: ‘Do not do this. You are going to get arrested.’”
Part of the challenge for prosecutors is that bringing criminal charges for trying to overturn an election is relatively uncharted legal terrain.
“It would be wrong to say that there’s precedent in these exact circumstances, because we have never had these exact circumstances,” said Mary McCord, a former top official in the Justice Department’s national security division and a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
In Georgia, Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney who led the investigation, turned to the state’s racketeering statute, often used for targeting organized crime, because of the magnitude of the inquiry and the large number of people involved.
In the federal case, Jack Smith, the special counsel assigned by the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Trump, used novel applications of criminal laws — such as conspiring to defraud the government and corruptly obstructing a congressional proceeding — to bring charges against the former president over his actions leading up to the Capitol riot.
In Michigan, the charges were more straightforward, focusing specifically on allegations of illegal possession of a voting machine and a conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a computer or computer system.
Such applications of the law, while in some cases untested, could establish a playbook for prosecutors to go after those who threaten elections in the future.
“We hope at the end of the day, yes, there will be precedents created, legal precedents created as a result of actions people took after the 2020 election,” said Jon Greenbaum, the chief counsel for the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a former Justice Department lawyer, adding that he hoped those precedents “in the end will make our democracy stronger.”
Alan Feuer contributed reporting.