Former US president, Donald Trump, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to historic charges of leading a criminal conspiracy that sought to defraud the American people by overturning the 2020 election.
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, entered his plea during a brief hearing at the same Washington courthouse where hundreds of his supporters had been convicted and sentenced for their roles in January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
“Not guilty,” Trump said after magistrate judge Moxila Upadhyaya read the charges — and potential maximum prison sentences — in the 45-page indictment brought by special counsel Jack Smith.
Shortly before leaving his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club for the short flight on his private plane to the nation’s capital, Trump defiantly doubled down on his baseless claim that the November 2020 election he lost to Democrat Joe Biden was “stolen.”
The 77-year-old billionaire has already been charged in two other criminal cases, and the new conspiracy charges raise the prospect of his being further embroiled in legal proceedings at the height of next year’s election campaign.
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.
“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.
Trump, in a Truth Social post, also accused Biden, his likely 2024 election rival, of seeking to charge him with “as many crimes as can be concocted.”
“But soon, in 2024, it will be our turn,” he wrote.
Biden, for his part, was asked during a bike ride while vacationing in Delaware if he would be following the arraignment. His response was a curt “No.”
Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor at the Hague, charged Trump with conspiracy to defraud the United States and attempting to disenfranchise voters with his false claims that he won the election.
“The purpose of the conspiracy was to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election by using knowingly false claims of election fraud,” the indictment said.
Smith linked Trump’s actions following his loss directly to the attack on the Capitol, which he called an “unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy.”
“It was fuelled by lies,” Smith said.
Trump is scheduled to go on trial in Florida in May of next year on charges that he took top secret government documents to his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida and refused to return them.
The twice-impeached former president also faces criminal charges in New York for allegedly paying election-eve hush money to a porn star.
He has also pleaded not guilty in both those cases.
The election plot allegedly included attempts to pressure Mike Pence into throwing out Electoral College votes at the January 6 joint session of Congress called to certify Biden’s win, which the vice president eventually refused to do.
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.