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Trump Pleads Not Guilty on Election Charges as Lawyers Argue Over Trial Schedule

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

WASHINGTON—Former President Donald Trump on Thursday pled not guilty to plotting to overturn the 2020 election, as he vowed to fight the four charges in the third criminal indictment brought forth against him this year.

Jack Smith, the Justice Department's special counsel, alleges that Trump, in an effort to short-circuit the legitimate election results and remain in office, knowingly lied about the extent of voter fraud, orchestrated a plan to send slates of fake electors to Washington from states he had lost, and tried to disrupt the certification of the legitimate results on Jan. 6, 2021.

Television news crews had lined up early Thursday on Constitution Avenue in front of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse for the arraignment. When Trump arrived, he was within eyesight of the Capitol steps where his supporters attacked police in hopes of stopping the ceremonial certification of the Electoral College results that sealed Joe Biden’s victory.

The Donald Trump in the courtroom showed none of the bombast he has projected at recent rallies or on social media. He ambled slowly into the courtroom, his arms limp at his side. He looked around the room and seemed to briefly make eye contact with Smith who was seated in the front row of benches and in Trump’s line of sight.

As Trump sat down at the defense table, he knitted his fingers together as he waited for the judge to enter the chamber. He flipped through the indictment in front of him, occasionally leaning over to talk to one of his lawyers, Todd Blanche, who cupped his hand over his mouth as he spoke to his client.

Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya oversaw Thursday's arraignment, but Trump's eventual trial will be handled by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. The next hearing in the case was set for August 28, during which Chutkan intends to set a trial date. Trump was told he was not required to appear in person for the next hearing.

Trump politely stood when asked how he pleaded to the charges. “Not guilty” he said, lowering his head as he said the word “guilty.”

Upadhyaya explained to Trump that he would not be held in custody and that there were several conditions to his release, including not attempting to influence a witness or juror in his case. Trump shook his head when the judge told him that violating the conditions of his release could result in his arrest.

Upadhyaya said that the federal government and Trump’s legal team had seven days to suggest a preferred trial date and outline how long they would need to bring their case.

Justice Department lawyers pushed hard for the case to be tried quickly. “This case will benefit from the normal order, including a speedy trial,” federal prosecutor Thomas Windom told the judge.

But Trump’s legal team pressed for a slower process. In a back and forth inside the courtroom, Trump’s lawyer John Lauro insisted that the former President's legal team would need considerable time to look over all of the government's evidence before they can respond with a suggested trial date or an estimate for how long they will need to defend Trump in court.

"There might be a massive amount of discovery we would have to look through," Lauro said. "We expect to vigorously address every issue in this case for Mr. Trump and the American people." Lauro thought the government’s push for a quick trial “is somewhat absurd given the scope of material we have to go through.” The government had three-and-a-half years to investigate the case, Lauro said. "These are weighty issues.”

Upadhyaya told Trump’s legal team to bring any objections or requests to Chutkan, as she would be handling the trial. After the arraignment was over, Trump stood, looked briefly in Jack Smith’s direction before walking slowly out.

Trump's 27-minute-long arraignment was yet another historic moment for the limestone courthouse, where seven aides to President Richard Nixon were charged in 1974 over a conspiracy to break-in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee during the 1972 election campaign.

Earlier Thursday, as he left his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump took to social media to tell his supporters he was being arrested for having challenged a “CORRUPT, RIGGED & STOLEN ELECTION” and that it was “A GREAT HONOR, BECAUSE I AM BEING ARRESTED FOR YOU.”

Trump intends to mount a forceful defense, with his defense team arguing that Trump had a First Amendment right to describe fraud allegations in public, and that he was relying on legal advice when he took steps to send his own, unelected, slates of electors to Washington. "You're entitled to believe and trust advice of counsel,” Trump’s lawyer John Lauro said Wednesday on NBC’s Today. “He had one of the leading conditional scholars in the United States, John Eastman, say this is a protocol you can follow. It's legal. That eliminates criminal intent.”

Eastman promoted the discredited legal theory that Vice President Mike Pence, in his role overseeing the certification of the electoral college votes, had the authority to toss out certified election results and gavel in Trump for a second term. A conservative lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Eastman is likely one of the six unnamed, alleged co-conspirator listed in the indictment against Trump.

Prosecutors will argue that Trump knew he was lying about fraud in the election and took steps to overturn the results anyway, despite being told by his own campaign staff, White House lawyers, Department of Justice leaders, and numerous Republican state officials and legislators that his public claims of election fraud were false.

After the arraignment, Trump drove in a black SUV through a summer rain storm to his private plane waiting for him on the tarmac at a nearby airport. When Trump got out of the SUV, his valet Walt Nauta, who is charged along with Trump in a separate federal case over Trump’s handling of classified documents, was holding an umbrella for the former President. Trump briskly grabbed the umbrella and walked a few steps to talk to reporters waiting next to his plane.

"This is a very sad day for America. And it was also very sad driving through Washington, DC, and seeing the filth and decay and all the broken buildings and walls and graffiti. This is not the place that I left," Trump said.

"When you look at what is happening, this is the persecution of a political opponent. This is never supposed to happen in America," he said, before walking up the steps and into his plane.

Trump is set to spend a lot of time in courtrooms in the coming weeks and months. Along with the two federal cases, he's facing separate criminal charges in New York over hush money payments to a porn star. Additionally, Trump is widely expected to face another criminal indictment, his fourth, in Georgia, later this month.

For now, the next event on his legal calendar is an arraignment next week in Fort Pierce, Fla., on additional charges in the classified documents case.

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