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Trump pleads not guilty to federal conspiracy charges in plot to overturn 2020 election

A four-count federal indictment accuses the former president of conspiring to overturn election results

Andrew Feinberg
at the E Barrett Prettyman Courthouse
,Alex Woodward
Friday 04 August 2023 00:55 BST
Watch: Donald Trump's third indictment explained

Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to four criminal charges stemming from his attempt to overturn the election he lost to Joe Biden less than three years ago.

Mr Trump entered his plea on the second-floor courtroom at the E Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington DC on 3 August, just a short walk from where a mob of his supporters began assaulting police officers at the start of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The twice-impeached, now-thrice-indicted ex-president’s appearance in criminal court – his third since April – comes just two days after a Washington DC grand jury charged him with three criminal conspiracies and obstruction in connection with his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

In a poetic twist of fate, Mr Trump’s latest arraignment brought him to the exact same courthouse where hundreds of people have been tried, convicted and sentenced to terms in prison as long as 18 years for charges in connection with January 6.

Mr Trump, the man Liz Cheney once credited with having “assembled” and “summoned” members of the mob, is now the latest defendant among them.

Three police officers who defended the Capitol that day – Daniel Hodges, Aquilino Gonnell and Harry Dunn – watched the former president’s arraignment from inside the court.

“All I have wanted from day one is accountability,” Mr Dunn said in a statement through his attorney.

Mr Trump was accompanied by John Lauro, a veteran Washington-based criminal defence attorney, and Todd Blanche, the New York-based lawyer who is leading his defence in the other criminal cases against him.

The former president – wearing his customary red tie, white shirt and dark blue suit – sat impassively between his attorneys, while US Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith was seen glancing at the defendant and counsel as the courtroom waited for the arrival of US Magistrate Judge Moxila A Upadhyaya.

The court proceedings began at 4.15 pm, with the courtroom standing for the magistrate judge’s entrance.

After attorneys for the government and defence introduced themselves, Mr Trump was asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and the judge reminded participants and media of court rules against recording.

Mr Trump was then asked to state his full name: “Donald J Trump – John – Donald John Trump.”

Asked for his age, he at first said “seven seven,” then corrected himself and said “77”.

After Judge Upadhyaya read the charges and explained the penalties Mr Trump could face if convicted, she advised the ex-president – who she addressed as “Mr Trump” – of his right to remain silent, and his right to an attorney.

After explaining each right, she asked if he understood. Each time, he replied: “Yes” or “yes, I do”.

When Mr Trump was asked to enter a plea, he spoke softly, almost mouthing the words as he replied: “Not guilty”.

Judge Upadhyaya warned Mr Trump that the “most important” condition of his release is that he not commit any crimes while awaiting trial, and said he could face pretrial detention or harsher sentences if he violates that condition.

She also warned him of the consequences of failing to appear for future court dates, and specifically cautioned Mr Trump against intimidating, retaliating, or trying to influence any witness in the case against him. Asked if he would comply, the ex-president appeared to answer in the affirmative, at which point the judge ordered a pretrial services officer to swear him to abide by the conditions, which he then signed in the magistrate judge’s presence.

Judge Upadhyaya then offered both sides several potential dates for the next hearing in the case, which she said she had come up with after consulting with Judge Tanya Chutkan, the district judge overseeing the case.

While the magistrate judge set the next hearing for 28 August, she said Mr Trump is not required to appear, and ordered the government to file a proposed schedule and state how many days it expects to need for trial within seven days. She also ordered the defence to file a response seven days after that.

Mr Lauro said the defence would need “an understanding of the magnitude of discovery,” including possible “exculpatory information” before being able to state when Mr Trump would be ready for trial.

“There’s no question in my mind that Mr Trump is entitled to a fair and just trial,” he said, adding that he would like information on the “scope and extent” of evidence within two or three days.

Mr Windom said in response that the government would “endeavour” to get the materials to defence “very, very quickly” after an appropriate protective order is entered.

He added that the case would benefit from “normal order” and “a speedy trial,” after which Judge Upadhyaya said there would be a fair process for both sides.

The magistrate judge added that Judge Chutkan intends to set a trial date at the 28 August hearing.

Mr Lauro then rose again to suggest that he and his co-counsel could not say when they’d want a trial until after the discovery is turned over, but Judge Upadhyaya said her order for a response from the defence seven days after the government’s proposal would stand.

In response, Mr Lauro then told the magistrate judge that it was “somewhat absurd” for the trial to take place within the time frame laid out under the Speedy Trial Act, and suggested that all he is seeking is “a little time”.

Judge Upadhyaya then ordered Mr Lauro to file his request to “toll” the Speedy Trial Act’s requirements in a written motion within five days.

Trump supporters demonstrated outside a federal courthouse on 3 August before the former president’s arraignment on charges connected to his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (REUTERS)

A relatively small number of pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators joined the dozens of news outlets and makeshift studios on the courthouse grounds. Law enforcement agencies erected temporary barriers around the building and surrounding streets.

Many of the pro-Trump figures who came to Washington appeared to be from the same group of die-hard supporters who flocked to his prior federal arraignment in Miami, including members of the “Blacks for Trump” group often seen behind him at his campaign rallies.

Another recognisable personality who came to the courthouse was Randy Credico, a comedian and radio host who gained a measure of prominence when he was a witness at the 2019 trial of longtime Trump associate Roger Stone on charges that the veteran GOP operative lied to Congress and committed witness tampering by threatening to harm Mr Credico’s emotional support dog, a Havanese called Bianca. Mr Stone, who was convicted of those charges, was later pardoned by Mr Trump before he left office.

The latest criminal charges against Donald Trump

The latest four-count indictment against Mr Trump alleges four crimes: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy against rights.

The indictment also lists six unnamed co-conspirators, including Trump-linked attorneys and Justice Department officials.

Prosecutors have outlined a multi-state scheme built on Mr Trump’s legacy of lies and conspiracy theories to undermine the democratic process, culminating with an attack on the US Capitol fuelled by that same baseless narrative.

According to prosecutors, then-President Trump and his allies conspired with officials in states that he lost to invalidate ballots and use fraudulent electors to cast their electoral college votes on his behalf, relied on the Justice Department to implement the plan, and pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to certify what was a fraudulent outcome when he presided over a joint session of Congress on 6 January, 2021.

After Mr Pence refused, Mr Trump and his alleged co-conspirators “exploited” the chaos from a mob of his supporters to delay the certification and make a last-ditch effort to reverse the results, according to the indictment.

“Despite having lost, [Mr Trump] was determined to remain in power,” the indictment states. “These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false. In fact, the Defendant was notified repeatedly that his claims were untrue – often by the people on whom he relied for candid advice on important matters, and who were best positioned to know the facts – and he deliberately disregarded the truth.”

Mr Trump and his allies and right-wing pundits have accused President Biden and the US Department of Justice of “weaponising” the federal government against the former president, cast as a victim of political persecution against his Democratic rival. They claim that the latest indictment is a threat to his First Amendment rights to refute his election loss.

The indictment, crucially, states that Mr Trump has the right – “like every American” – to falsely state whatever he wants about the election, even to claim victory when in fact has not.

What he cannot do, prosecutors argue, is weaponize those lies in a conspiracy to overturn the results.

“Each of these conspiracies – built on the widespread mistrust [Mr Trump] was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud – targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government,” according to the indictment.

More criminal charges and trials ahead

The case is far from Mr Trump’s only legal obstacle as he campaigns for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.

Mr Trump faces two other criminal cases that are scheduled for trial next year.

The first, starting March 2024, will be in his former home state of New York, where a Manhattan prosecutor in April charged him with falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments used to silence stories of his alleged affairs in the lead-up to his 2016 election, marking the first-ever criminal indictment of a former president.

Two months later, he will appear in a South Florida federal courtroom to be tried on a 40-count federal indictment accusing him of illegally retaining classified documents at the Palm Beach mansion turned social club where he maintains his primary residence, and conspiring to obstruct a federal probe into his alleged unlawful retention of the documents with the aid of two co-conspirators. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Mr Trump, his three eldest children and his business empire also face a $250m lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James following a three-year civil investigation into allegations of fraud. That case is expected to head to trial on 2 October.

And in Georgia, a grand jury is hearing evidence and witness testimony surrounding a pressure campaign from Mr Trump and his allies to overturn 2020 election results in that state following a two-year investigation from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Ms Willis has indicated that potential charges stemming from that investigation would arrive this month.

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