How the 2016 election could factor into the case accusing Donald Trump of trying to overturn the 2020 race

To hear his lawyers tell it, Donald Trump was alarmed by Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, motivated as President to focus on cybersecurity and had a good-faith basis four years later to worry that foreign actors had again meddled in the race.

But to federal prosecutors, 2016 is significant as the year that Trump spread misinformation about voter fraud and proved himself resistant to accepting the outcome of elections that might not go his way.

Even though a trial set for next year in Washington is centered on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, lawyers on both sides have signaled their desire — for totally different purposes — to draw attention to the tumultuous presidential contest four years earlier as a way to help explain his state of mind after his loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

“When we’re talking about someone’s belief or mental state, there is usually no one piece of evidence that is dispositive,” said David Aaron, a former Justice Department national security prosecutor. “There’s usually multiple data points that each side will argue indicates one mental state or the other.”

The callback to the 2016 race is perhaps not surprising given the history-making events of that year, when Russian operatives interfered in the election with what U.S. officials say was a goal of getting Trump elected over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. The meddling and its aftermath thrust the topic of election security and faith in democratic processes to the forefront of American discourse.

It will ultimately be up to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to determine what evidence is admissible at trial and what materials defense lawyers are entitled to get from prosecutors as part of the information-sharing process known as discovery. Special counsel Jack Smith’s team says information about the 2016 election being sought by the defense is “wholly irrelevant” to the current case while telling Trump’s lawyers and the judge that it wants to present evidence about Trump’s history of claiming fraud.

The interest in 2016 was laid bare in recent court filings, including one in which defense lawyers made a long-shot request to force prosecutors to turn over all materials, including a classified version of a U.S. intelligence assessment, related to Russian interference and influence operations in that election.

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