WASHINGTON - Inside a Washington, D.C. courtroom Thursday, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to four federal charges in connection to his claims of election fraud and attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Sources inside the courthouse say that when the magistrate judge entered, she told Trump she would walk him through his rights and the case that is pending against him. He was sworn in and asked preliminary questions to ensure that he had a full understanding of the plea he was entering.
The four charges against the former president include conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights. The most serious of those charges carries a sentence of up to 20 years.
After entering his plea, the judge set Trump's conditions for release — the first of which: do not commit any other crimes. He also is not allowed to talk about witnesses or potential witnesses and must appear in court when he's called. When that will be though is not yet known. His next court date is set for 10 a.m. on Aug. 28, but the judge has said his lawyers can appear on his behalf.
This next appearance will not be in front of a magistrate judge but rather the one assigned to his case, Judge Tanya Chutkhan.
Chutkhan is an Obama appointee who has proven to be harsh on Jan. 6 defendants. She's also ruled against Trump in the past when he tried to keep certain records from the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6. When deciding against Trump, Chutkhan wrote that "presidents are not kings and the plaintiff is not president."
"This judge for this federal case regarding Jan. 6 or this case right here runs a pretty tight ship and as a result, she's going to have to decide whether she's going to essentially consent to any of these preliminary motions," attorney A. Scott Bolden told FOX 5 before the arraignment.
Chutkhan will set the calendar for what comes next in the case and would be the one to oversee a trial — if it comes to that.
Trump was indicted on the four counts by a grand jury Tuesday. In a 45-page document, prosecutors laid out their case, saying Trump knowingly pushed false election claims as part of a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.
They also allege that through a months-long campaign, he attempted to use the Justice Department to target legislators and elected officials in states where President Joe Biden won with "sham election fraud investigations" and set up slates of fake electors to try to subvert the will of the people by overturning the results.
There is a heavy burden of proof in this case. Prosecutors are being tasked with proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump's actions constituted criminal action against the government of the United States.
"The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy," Special Counsel Jack Smith said Tuesday. "It was fueled by lies, lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election."
Smith also said he plans to request a speedy trial. So far, the Trump team's strategy has been to delay as they prepare their defense.
The unprecedented arraignment set the former president squarely between two significant landmarks from his tumultuous years in office: the White House and the Capitol building, where his supporters staged violent riots as Congress attempted to certify the election on Jan. 6.
Law enforcement agencies stepped up security ahead of Trump's visit, putting waist-high perimeter fencing up around the Capitol complex and initiating several road closures in the area. The area was heavily patrolled throughout the day as groups of both supporters and critics began gathering around the courthouse hours before the president was set to arrive.
Based on the several social media posts Trump made ahead of the appearance — flush with harsh reprisals against the Department of Justice and the Biden administration — it was assumed by many that he would enter a not-guilty plea.
"Biden and his family steal Millions and Millions of Dollars, including BRIBES from foreign countries, and I’m headed to D.C. to be ARRESTED for protesting a CROOKED ELECTION. UNFAIR VENUE, UNFAIR JUDGE. We are a Nation in Decline. MAGA!!!" he said in his last written post before the arraignment began.
U.S. Marshals have said this is not technically an arrest, it is only a summons for his appearance, so he did not have his picture taken for a mugshot. However, he was fingerprinted and had to provide the court with information for processing.
Following his appearance, Trump headed back to Reagan National Airport where he provided a brief statement to media.
"This is a very sad day for America," Trump said. "When you look at what’s happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America. This is the persecution of the person that’s leading by very, very substantial numbers in the Republican primary, and leading Biden by a lot. So, you can’t beat it, you persecute ‘em or you prosecute ‘em. We can’t let this happen in America!"
Despite this third indictment, Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination with 58% of Republican respondents in a Morning Consult poll saying they still back the "MAGA" candidate and 54% of the same group saying they plan to vote for him in the latest New York Times/Sienna College poll. When it comes to the odds of a rematch between Trump and Biden, NYT/Sienna shows the two in a deadlock, each possibly taking 43% of the vote.
Some say Trump's continued legal battles are lending themselves to a sense of "martyrdom," among his most loyal voters, pumping up support. Trump himself even made a joke about it on TruthSocial, saying "I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!"
The former president landed back at his estate in Bedminster, N.J. around 6 p.m. What comes next in his seemingly interminable spate of court cases is yet to be seen.