Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal charges that he orchestrated a plot to try to overturn his 2020 election loss in what US prosecutors call an unprecedented effort by the then-president to undermine the pillars of American democracy.
Special Counsel Jack Smith, who has overseen the investigation, looked on from the front row as Trump entered his plea before US Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya.
The arraignment, lasting about half an hour, took place just half a mile, 1 km, from the US Capitol, the building his supporters stormed on Jan. 6, 2021, to try to stop Congress from certifying his defeat.
The plea, the third for Trump in four months, kicks off months of pretrial legal wrangling that will unfold against the backdrop of the 2024 presidential campaign, in which Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic President Joe Biden.
In a 45-page indictment on Tuesday, Smith accused Trump and his allies of promoting false claims the election was rigged, pressuring state and federal officials to alter the results and assembling fake slates of electors to try to wrest electoral votes from Biden.
Trump, 77, faces four counts, including conspiracy to defraud the US, to deprive citizens of their right to have their votes counted and to obstruct an official proceeding. The most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
The next court date in the case will be Aug. 28 before US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, though Upadhyaya said Trump would not be required to attend. Chutkan intends to set a trial date at that time, Upadhyaya said.
Aug. 28 is five days after the first scheduled Republican primary debate. Trump has yet to say he will take part.
Trump has portrayed the indictment, as well as the other criminal cases against him, as a “witch hunt” intended to derail his White House campaign. In a series of social media posts since Tuesday, he has accused the Biden administration of targeting him for political gain.
He previously pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he retained classified documents after leaving office and New York state charges that he falsified documents in connection with hush money payments to a porn star.
Trump may soon face more charges in Georgia, where a state prosecutor is investigating his attempts to overturn the election there. The Atlanta-area prosecutor, Fani Willis, has said she will file indictments by mid-August.
“I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social media platform ahead of his Thursday court appearance.
About half of Republicans said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, underscoring the potential risks his legal entanglements pose for his candidacy.
But the same poll, taken after Tuesday’s indictment, also demonstrated his remarkable resiliency in the Republican primary race. He earned the support of 47 percent of Republicans, extending his lead over second-place Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, at 13 percent.
Three-quarters of Republicans said they agreed that the charges were “politically motivated,” showing that Trump’s claim that he is the victim of political persecution resonates with his base.