Trump Pleads Not Guilty to Charges That He Plotted to Overturn Election

Photo for The Washington Post by Tom Brenner
Former president Donald Trump arrives at Reagan National Airport after his court appearance in Washington.

WASHINGTON – Former president Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, appearing in the federal courthouse that sits just blocks away from where his angry supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to keep him in power.

Trump, the leading Republican contender in the 2024 presidential race, entered the not-guilty plea before Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya – following in the footsteps of hundreds of others charged with crimes as a result of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. According to the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, 1,077 people have faced federal charges in some way tied to that attack. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, is the 1,078th.

“As to counts one to four, how does Mr. Trump plead?” Upadhyaya asked.

Trump, wearing a blue suit and red tie on what he would later call “a very sad day for America,” raised his head and said, “Not guilty.” In a corner of the courtroom stood a handful of Secret Service agents, a silent reminder that this defendant was unlike any of the others who came before.

The judge reminded Trump that while he would be released, he was required to obey certain conditions, including that he must not violate any laws, must appear in court when required and must not talk to any witnesses about the case, unless it is through an attorney. His next scheduled court appearance is at 10 a.m. Aug. 28 before U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, though the magistrate said he would have the option not to appear in person.

Special counsel Jack Smith, who is handling the investigation of Trump and his inner circle, was in the courtroom during the former president’s court appearance. The two sat about 15 feet apart and did not interact.

At times while he waited for the judge, and during the hearing, Trump whispered quietly to one of his lawyers.

An important symbolic moment in the former president’s legal saga, the arraignment was over less than 30 minutes after the judge took the bench. But the businesslike hearing starts the legal clock ticking toward what would be a historic trial in the nation’s capital over what prosecutors call Trump’s criminal conspiracies to remain in power after he’d lost the election.

Trump is not accused of criminal incitement, nor is he facing a seditious conspiracy charge alleging he plotted to use force to remain president. But he has been charged with conspiring to block Congress from carrying out its work that day confirming Joe Biden’s election, and successfully obstructing the vote confirmation by directing his supporters to the Capitol. He is also accused of scheming to disrupt the election process and deprive Americans of their right to have their votes counted.

As soon as the hearing was over, Trump’s motorcade headed back to Reagan National Airport, where he referred to the case as a “persecution.”

He contended the city had deteriorated since he left 2½ years ago, when he skipped Biden’s inauguration. “It was also very sad driving through Washington, D.C., and seeing the filth and the decay and all of the broken buildings and walls and the graffiti,” he said. “This is not the place that I left. It’s a very sad thing to see it when you look at what’s happening.”

This was the third time this year that Trump has traveled to face a criminal arraignment, with each trip drawing live coverage of virtually every step of his journey by plane and in a motorcade. He also faces three upcoming trials in New York: a civil trial in October over allegedly fraudulent practices in his real estate business, a second civil trial in January in which he is accused of defaming a woman who accused him of rape, and a criminal trial in March in which he is accused of falsifying records to cover up payments to an adult-film actress. Charging decisions are also expected soon from a grand jury in Fulton County, Ga., investigating efforts to subvert the election results in that state.

While many in Washington had long waited to see Trump stand up in court to face potential legal consequences for the chaos and fear of the Jan. 6 riot, on the day it finally came, there were only several dozen demonstrators outside the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse, often lost in a sea of hundreds of journalists. Only five private citizens who stood in line entered the courtroom to watch the proceeding – though it was well attended by staff, judicial clerks and others with connections to the court, including Chief Judge James E. Boasberg and a half-dozen other current and former judges, who sat in the back row in regular clothes, not black robes.

As the former president traveled from New Jersey to the nation’s capital, Trump’s campaign issued another broadside against Smith, charging that he “has conducted a dirty, politically motivated investigation of President Trump to prevent him from winning back the presidency.” The campaign missive charged that Smith was Biden’s “political pawn.”

Smith is expected to press for a speedy trial in Washington, as his prosecutors did before a federal judge in Florida who is overseeing a separate criminal case accusing Trump of illegally holding on to sensitive national defense information after leaving office. Trump’s attorneys have already signaled that they will fight for more time before trial, arguing that the issues in the case are complex, span many states, and have potentially huge consequences for the legal and political framework of the nation. His lawyer has also said publicly that he would seek the move the trial out of D.C. to West Virginia.

The magistrate judge gave prosecutors a week to file court papers declaring when they would like to go to trial. After that, Trump’s defense team will have a week to respond.

Trump lawyer John Lauro told the court that he expected the case would involve a massive amount of evidence that defense attorneys have to look through “in order to represent Mr. Trump and the American people.” He said prosecutors should tell him quickly “the amount of data we’re expected to look through . . . and the amount of exculpatory information for the president” so he could determine how long the defense team would need to prepare for trial, and how long such a trial is likely to take.

Prosecutor Thomas Windom said the government was prepared to hand over a substantial amount of discovery in short order.

On paper, the Speedy Trial Act requires prosecutors to be ready to go to trial within 70 days of an indictment, but in practice the law and the courts allow many ways to delay that as both sides review evidence and offer legal arguments.

At the hearing, Lauro called it “somewhat absurd” for prosecutors to suggest they might be able to proceed to trial in that 70-day time span. The Speedy Trial Act, he said, protects the defendant’s rights.

“All we would ask for is the opportunity to fairly defend our client,” Lauro said. “In order to do that, we’re going to need a little time.”

As the hearing came to an end, Judge Upadhyaya declared: “I can guarantee everybody that there will be a fair process and a fair trial in this case.”

At the next hearing at the end of the month, prosecutors and defense lawyers are likely to argue over proposed trial dates. While it is common practice to set trial dates soon after an indictment has been filed, such schedules can change greatly as the lawyers and the judge wrestle with evidentiary and legal issues to prepare for trial.

Trump’s lawyers have previously argued that the trial over his alleged mishandling of classified documents should not take place until after the next presidential election. The judge in that matter has tentatively scheduled the trial for next spring.

The Washington Post’s Isaac Arnsdorf, Mia Cremona, Henry Brown, Shea Carlberg, Emily Davies, Paul Duggan, Gabriella Fine, Hayden Godfrey, Micah Israel, Chambers Miller, Jeremy Potter, Ianne Salvosa, Ellie Silverman and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.