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Appearing in court for 3rd indictment, Trump pleads not guilty in 2020 election case

Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Thursday for trying to overturn the results of his 2020 presidential election loss, answering for the first time to federal charges that accuse him of orchestrating a brazen and ultimately failed attempt to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

Trump appeared before a magistrate judge in Washington’s federal courthouse two days after being indicted on four felony counts by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. The charges accuse him of trying to subvert the will of voters and undo his election loss in the days before Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters stormed the US Capitol in a violent and bloody clash with law enforcement.

“Not guilty,” Trump said after magistrate judge Moxila Upadhyaya read the charges — and potential maximum prison sentences — in the 45-page indictment brought by Smith.

Trump, the 2024 Republican presidential primary front-runner, is facing charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruct Congress’ certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. His appearance Thursday, and the rest of the court case, will unfold in a courthouse block in clear view of the Capitol and in a building where more than 1,000 of the Capitol rioters have been charged.

Trump has said he is innocent, and his legal team has characterized the latest case as an attack on his right to free speech. The case is part of an ongoing set of escalating legal troubles for the ex-president, coming nearly two months after Trump pleaded not guilty to dozens of federal felony counts accusing him of hoarding classified documents and thwarting government efforts to retrieve them.

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Smith himself was in the courtroom and sat in the front row behind the prosecutors handling the case. Three police officers who defended the Capitol that day were also seen entering the courthouse.

Opponents of former US president Donald Trump protest outside the E. Barrett Prettyman US Federal Courthouse, in Washington, DC, August 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The indictment from Smith charges Trump with four felony counts related to his efforts to undo his presidential election loss, including conspiracy to defraud the US government and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. The charges could lead to a yearslong prison sentence in the event of a conviction.

The former president was the only person charged in the case, though prosecutors referenced six unnamed co-conspirators, mostly lawyers, they say he plotted with, including in a scheme to enlist fake electors in seven battleground states won by Biden to submit false certificates to the federal government.

The indictment chronicles how Trump and his Republican allies, in what Smith described as an attack on a “bedrock function of the US government,” repeatedly lied about the results in the two months after he lost the election and pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, and state election officials to take action to help him cling to power.

Security was tight around the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse where the hearing was held with metal barricades blocking access and police patrolling the perimeter.

Small groups of demonstrators holding placards milled about outside along with some curious tourists.

Supporters of former US president Donald Trump rally outside the E. Barrett Prettyman US Federal Courthouse, in Washington, DC, August 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

“Jail Trump Forever,” read one sign. “Trump 24,” read another.

“We wanted to see it,” said Dave Werner, 52, of Houston, Texas, who was visiting the capital with his son Liam, 12. “It’s a little bit being part of history.”

The accusations that Trump and six unnamed co-conspirators plotted to upend the 2020 election are the most serious of the cases threatening to derail his White House comeback bid.

In a post on his Truth Social site, Trump complained he was being “arrested for having challenged a corrupt, rigged and stolen election.”

“UNFAIR VENUE, UNFAIR JUDGE,” he said.

This is the third criminal case brought against Trump in less than six months.

He was charged in New York with falsifying business records in connection with a hush money payment to a porn actor during the 2016 presidential campaign. Smith’s office also has charged him with 40 felony counts in Florida, accusing him of illegally retaining classified documents at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago, and refusing government demands to give them back. He has pleaded not guilty in both those cases, which are set for trial next year.

And prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, are expected in the coming weeks to announce charging decisions in an investigation into efforts to subvert election results in that state.

Supporters of former US president Donald Trump rally outside the E. Barrett Prettyman US Federal Courthouse, in Washington, DC, August 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Trump’s lawyer John Lauro has asserted in television interviews that Trump’s actions were protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and that he relied on the advice of lawyers. Trump has claimed without evidence that Smith’s team is trying to interfere with the 2024 presidential election.

Although Trump’s arraignment was before a magistrate judge, the actual case is to be heard by US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, an appointee of former Democratic president Barack Obama.

Chutkan, 61, and Trump have a legal history — she ruled against him in 2021 when he filed a suit asserting executive privilege to block documents from being handed over to the congressional committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.

Chutkan has also heard nearly three dozen cases involving participants in the Capitol riot and has handed out stiff sentences.

As president, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for seeking political dirt on Biden from Ukraine and over the events of January 6 but was acquitted by the Senate both times.