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Former president Donald Trump pleads not guilty to obstruction, conspiracy charges to overturn 2020 election


Valet Walt Nauta hands former President Donald Trump an umbrella before he speaks at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Arlington, Va., after facing a judge on federal conspiracy charges that allege he conspired to subvert the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., just blocks away from where he exhorted his followers to march on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday to four felony counts related to his alleged conspiracy to subvert the results of the 2020 election.

Trump appeared in person Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya wearing a navy blue suit and long red tie. Expectedly, his appearance was met with a huge media presence both in and outside of the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse where hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants have already been adjudicated in the 939 days since the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Bomb-sniffing dogs, U.S. Secret Service and court security officers were in full force Thursday.

When he entered the courtroom, Trump plodded up to the table, walking slowly, appearing almost as if his feet were weighed down. As he sidled up to the defense counsel table, he paused briefly before taking a seat.

His arraignment got underway roughly 15 minutes later than expected, leaving Trump to wait as he sat slightly hunched over at a roughly 12-foot long table with his attorneys John Lauro and Todd Blanche flanking him.

Trump, with his hands clasped together, conferred often with his attorneys. The men whispered in one another’s ears. A large stack of paper was placed before the former president, believed to be a copy of his indictment. He flipped through it briefly, spoke to Blanche and then the arraignment officially began.

Trump was indicted on Aug. 1 on four felony counts including conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to corruptly obstruct and impede the congressional proceeding on Jan. 6, 2021; conspiracy against the right to vote and have one’s vote counted; and obstruction of, and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding.

On Thursday, he waived his right to hear the indictment read back to him and when he stood to announce his plea after being sworn in, he cocked his chin up slightly in the judge’s direction. His arms hung heavily at his side.

“Not guilty,” the former president said, his voice quiet, slightly pausing between words.

Watching him enter his plea from the back of the courtroom were a number of judges including Chief Judge James Boasberg and U.S. District Judges Amy Berman Jackson and Randolph Moss and others.

Also looking on was Special Counsel Jack Smith. He arrived minutes before the former president entered the courtroom and was flanked by FBI agents.

Though the entirety of the 45-page indictment against him was not read aloud, Upadhyaya did go over the counts and the maximum sentences for each.

For conspiracy to defraud the U.S., if convicted, the sentence should not be more than 5 years; on count two, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, if convicted, the term of imprisonment should not exceed 20 years. On the third count, obstruction of an official proceeding, the same maximum sentence of 20 years applies. And on the fourth count, conspiracy against the right to have one’s vote counted, the maximum sentence, if convicted, is 10 years.

The judge also instructed Trump that he is not to speak about the facts of the case with any witnesses without their lawyers present.

Now that he has been arraigned, the case will go next to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. Judge Upadhyaya worked to set the trial brief schedule for the government and for Trump, but met some pushback from Lauro.

When Upadhyaya offered a series of dates — Aug. 21, Aug. 22 or Aug. 28 — prosecutor Thomas Windom requested the soonest available, saying the government was prepared to quickly turn over a significant amount of discovery.

But when Lauro approached, he asked for the opposite: the latest possible date offered of Aug. 28.

Upadhyaya set the next hearing for Aug. 28 at 10 a.m. before Chutkan.

Trump’s case was randomly assigned to Chutkan. She has considerable experience in the realm of Jan. 6 cases, as she has presided over a number of trials involving Jan. 6 defendants.

She has also been tougher on Trump than he may like.

In November 2021, for example, Chutkan denied Trump’s request to stop congressional investigators from receiving a swath of records tied to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump pointed to what he called “executive privilege” as the reason he was allowed to keep his communications covert, but Chutkan rebuffed him — and sharply. Executive privilege protects current presidents, not former ones, she ruled, adding that “presidents are not kings, and plaintiff is not president.

As proceedings continued Thursday, Lauro angled to delay Trump’s next hearing beyond the 28th, asking the court if it would consider waiving the right to a speedy trial.

“We know this court will give him his due process rights… [but] please give us two to three days to understand the scope of discovery,” Lauro said.

The government was asked to respond and Windom shot back: “This case, like any other, would benefit from normal order, including a speedy trial.”

Upadhyaya assured the parties everyone would have time to lodge their objections over the trial brief schedule with the district judge but for now, she said, the parties would have a week to get their first briefs in and to get the process rolling.

Thursday marked the third time that the former president has been criminally indicted this year. This was the first time, however, that he faced charges connected to the events of Jan. 6. 2021.

Prosecutors allege Trump, along with six presently-unnamed co-conspirators — who appear to be gaggle of his attorneys and advisers — engaged in a weekslong scheme to overturn the election results even though Trump knew and was repeatedly informed by advisers and others in positions of authority that he lost the race to now-President Joe Biden.

At the center of this scheme was an alleged conspiracy to pass off fake electoral slates for seven key battleground states. This ploy, prosecutors say, was intended to swing the election in Trump’s favor.

Key to the case too is the assertion that Trump knew his claims about election fraud were false and that he knowingly lied in order to carry out his corrupt plan. Trump also used the Justice Department itself as a means to pursue the scheme, prosecutors argue. They allege that he exploited the violence that erupted at the Capitol on the 6th and hoped to use it as a means to delay or stop the certification and advance the conspiracy.

The indictment also alleges Trump pressured former Vice President Mike Pence to abuse his authority during the Jan. 6 certification ceremony, too. Pence’s role was purely ministerial, but prosecutors say when the vice president broached the subject with Trump less than a week before the Capitol attack and told him he didn’t have the authority Trump insisted he did, Trump balked.

“You’re too honest,” Trump allegedly told him.

A man wearing a Donald Trump mask appears outside of a federal courthouse with an orange jumpsuit and fake handcufffs on.

David Barrows of Washington, D.C. impersonates former President Donald Trump in handcuffs as he demonstrates outside the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C., Aug. 2, 2023. (Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images)

“This is a very sad day for America and it was also very sad driving through Washington, D.C., and seeing the filth and decay and all of the broken buildings and walls and graffiti. This is not the place I left,” Trump said on Thursday after he left the courthouse.

Clutching an umbrella before boarding his plane, he continued: “When you look at what’s happening, this is the persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America.”

Trump has also pleaded not guilty to 35 felony fraud charges in New York in April. In June, the former president entered a not guilty plea to 37 federal felony charges for his alleged retention of classified materials after leaving the White House. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading that case, added three more counts to the Florida indictment late last month.

As it went in Florida for him, federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C. did not request that Trump be held in jail prior to trial. Pretrial detention factors for a typical defendant are usually decided by weighing a person’s violent criminal record, whether they pose a flight risk or are a potential danger to the community.

Like many defendants facing criminal charges connected to Jan. 6 before him, before he left the courthouse Thursday, Trump’s fingerprints were also collected.

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