Former U.S. president Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday to trying to overturn the results of his 2020 presidential election loss, answering for the first time to federal charges that accuse him of orchestrating a brazen and ultimately failed attempt to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
Trump appeared before a magistrate judge in Washington’s federal courthouse for a short hearing two days after he was indicted on four felony counts by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. The charges accuse Trump of trying to subvert the will of voters and undo his election loss in the days before Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent and bloody clash with law enforcement.
“Not guilty,” Trump said in court, emphasizing the first word.
Trump, the 2024 Republican presidential primary front-runner, is facing charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruct Congress’s certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s appearance Thursday, and the rest of the court case, will unfold in a courthouse with a clear view of the Capitol and in a building where more than 1,000 of the Capitol rioters have been charged.
Trump’s legal team has characterized the latest case as an attack on his right to free speech. After the hearing, he suggested the case amounts to political persecution because he is leading in the race for the Republican primary, and ahead of Biden in polls.
“This is a very sad day for America,” he told reporters on an airport tarmac.
“When you look at what’s happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America.”
Trump is expected to rejoin the campaign trail as he seeks to reclaim the White House in 2024. He has also accused Smith of trying to thwart his chances in the next presidential election.
The next hearing in the case has been set for Aug. 28, just days after the first debate in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
This is the third criminal case filed against Trump this year, but the first to try to hold him criminally responsible for his efforts to cling to power in the weeks between his election loss and the Capitol attack that stunned the world as it unfolded live on TV.
Trump arrived in Washington around 3 p.m. ET after flying in from New Jersey by private plane. His motorcade made its way through the city’s crowded streets, using lights and sirens — a journey once again documented in wall-to-wall cable coverage.
The 45-page indictment charges Trump with four felony counts related to his efforts to undo his election loss in the run-up to the riot, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. The charges could lead to a years-long prison sentence in the event of a conviction.
Smith himself was in the courtroom and sat in the front row behind the prosecutors handling the case.
Three police officers who defended the Capitol that day were seen entering the courthouse. One of them, Harry Dunn, said in a statement that “all I have wanted from day one is accountability and justice for the law enforcement men and women who fought bravely on Jan. 6.”
“I would be lying if I did not acknowledge my numbness with the news of the indictment today of a former president of the United States,” he said. “I am confident our legal system will handle this case properly.”
Only person charged in this case
Trump was the only person charged in this case, although in the indictment prosecutors referenced six unnamed co-conspirators, mostly lawyers, they say he plotted with, including a scheme to enlist fake electors in seven battleground states won by Biden to submit false certificates to the federal government.
The indictment chronicles how Trump and his Republican allies, in what Smith described as an attack on a “bedrock function of the U.S. government,” repeatedly lied about the results in the two months after he lost the election and pressured his vice-president, Mike Pence, and state election officials to take action to help him cling to power.
Trump was also charged in New York with falsifying business records in connection with a hush-money payment to an adult film performer during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Smith’s office also has charged him with 40 felony counts in Florida, accusing him of illegally retaining classified documents at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago, and refusing government demands to give them back. He has pleaded not guilty in both those cases, which are set for trial next year.
Prosecutors in Fulton County, Ga., are expected in coming weeks to announce charging decisions in an investigation into efforts to subvert election results in that state.
Trump’s lawyer John Lauro has asserted in television interviews that Trump’s actions were protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and that he relied on the advice of lawyers.
Smith said in a rare public statement this week that he was seeking a speedy trial, though Lauro has said he intends to slow the case down so that the defence team can conduct its own investigation.
- This week on Cross Country Checkup, our Ask Me Anything focuses on the criminal charges against former U.S. president Donald Trump related to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. What questions do you have? Fill out the details on this form to get your questions in early.