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Trump makes first appearance in court on Jan. 6-related charges

Former president pleaded not guilty to four charges related to his efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election

Former President Donald Trump arrives at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thursday for an arraignment on four counts in federal court for his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thursday for an arraignment on four counts in federal court for his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump traveled to a Washington courthouse Thursday and pleaded not guilty to four criminal charges in a case connected to his push to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The 77-year-old politician entered the plea, which was expected, during a brief hearing before federal Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya with a few dozen members of the public and press looking on inside. John L. “Jack” Smith, the special counsel leading the probes in Washington and Florida, was in the courtroom for Trump’s plea but did not speak.

Upadhyaya read the four charges against Trump, advised him of his rights and warned him against interfering with a witness or potential jurors.

The magistrate released Trump without a bond but required him not to commit any crimes while released and to appear for hearings in the case unless a judge in the case orders otherwise. Upadhyaya also set the next hearing in the case for Aug. 28, when the district judge handling the case, Judge Tanya Chutkan, is expected to set a trial date.

Upadhyaya also directed the government to file a brief within a week that lays out a proposed trial schedule and gave Trump’s team a week to respond. Trump attorney John Lauro pushed back on that timeline, arguing the government should give them an extra peek at the evidence to prepare for the scope of the case.

“We expect to vigorously address every aspect of this matter on behalf of Mr. Trump and on behalf of the American people,” Lauro said.

Justice Department attorney Thomas Windom did not back down. “In this case, just like any other case, this case will benefit from the normal order including a speedy trial,” Windom said.

Trump and his attorneys entered from a side door, away from the public hallways of the courthouse, about 20 minutes before the hearing began. The former president wore his signature red tie and sat between his attorneys, Lauro and Todd Blanche.

Trump’s security detail, which he receives as a former president, stood off to one side of the courtroom.

The historic court proceeding played out only a short walk away from the Capitol, where a mob of pro-Trump supporters violently breached the building on Jan. 6, 2021, and threw the election certification process into disarray.

The court action once again prompted a national spectacle, as both anti-Trump and pro-Trump demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse. Journalists mingled alongside crowds of bystanders outside amid hunkered-down security, metal fencing and a heavy police presence.

The 45-page indictment accuses the former president of undermining the will of American voters with a multipronged scheme to reverse his election defeat.

Federal prosecutors say Trump and his co-conspirators organized their own false slates of electors in 2020 battleground states, attempted to use the Justice Department to “conduct sham election crime investigations” and tried to enlist then-Vice President Mike Pence to use his ceremonial role to fraudulently change the election results on Jan. 6, 2021.

Prosecutors also contend that Trump and others exploited the violence at the Capitol by pushing lawmakers to continue to delay the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory with continued false claims of election fraud. Trump had a right to spread false claims about election fraud, prosecutors said, but committed a crime when he pushed to discount legitimate votes and subvert the election results.

Lauro told NPR on Wednesday that Trump was exercising his free speech and had been receiving advice from his attorneys, an early indication of the former president’s defense.

“He had every right to advocate for a position that he believed in and his supporters believed in,” Lauro said on Wednesday. “And this is the first time in the history of the United States where a sitting administration is criminalizing speech against a prior administration. It’s really quite unprecedented, and it really will politicize the criminal justice system.”

Lauro, in an interview with CBS, also said Trump’s legal team would try to move the trial out of Washington, D.C., which is where the attack occurred and overwhelmingly voted for Biden in 2020. Trump endorsed the idea on Truth Social ahead of the court appearance Thursday, writing that he hoped the trial would be moved to a “impartial” venue like the “politically unbiased” state of West Virginia.

The former president has sought to undermine the reputation of the Justice Department, accusing prosecutors of targeting Biden’s political rival in next year’s election.

The charges are some of the most serious of the three criminal cases pending against the former president. Trump is currently scheduled to face trial in March in New York on state charges that he falsified business records connected to his 2016 presidential campaign and a May trial in Florida for separate federal charges alleging he kept classified documents after his presidency.

A Georgia state prosecutor has also indicated she may bring a separate criminal case before a grand jury this month connected to Trump’s effort to overturn his loss in the state.

Several of Trump’s allies in Congress have already come to his defense. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., vowed to defund Smith’s office, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., called for Smith to sit for an interview with the House Judiciary Committee.

Those actions could mark an extraordinary escalation between Congress and the Justice Department, especially as the government faces a Sept. 30 funding deadline.

While Republicans have rushed to Trump’s defense, Democrats say the case must move forward without any outside interference and argue that no person is above the law.