Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to charges he sought to overturn the 2020 election results in the United States, as the embattled former president made his first court appearance to respond to a new federal indictment against him.
“When you look at what’s happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent,” Trump said from an airport tarmac in Virginia after leaving the court. “This was never supposed to happen in America.”
Trump entered his plea on Thursday afternoon during an arraignment hearing at the Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, DC. The judge set the next hearing in the case for August 28.
The arraignment came just two days after US prosecutors filed four federal charges against Trump, accusing the Republican politician of seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election that he lost to his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
The case is the third criminal indictment filed against the former president since March. Trump also faces state charges in New York over an alleged hush-money payment to an adult film star and federal charges linked to accusations he mishandled classified government documents at his Florida estate.
The current frontrunner in the race for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination, Trump has denied all wrongdoing and framed the indictments as attempts to derail his campaign.
But the latest indictment could be his biggest hurdle yet. Experts have said the 2020 election interference case marks the most significant of the three criminal indictments – with one expert calling it “probably the most significant legal case in the nation’s history”.
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The indictment alleges that Trump “pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results” in an attempt to scuttle Biden’s 2020 victory.
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Prosecutors highlighted Trump’s involvement in the events leading up to the US Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters overran the building to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election win.
Debbie Hines, a legal analyst and former prosecutor in Baltimore, Maryland, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the case will be “a test of the US legal system as well as the United States’ democracy”.
“Everything is on [the] line,” she said, stressing that every defendant accused of crimes in the US faces the same legal process that Trump will go through. “He is presumed innocent in a court of law until he is convicted of anything, and he has a right to be tried before a jury.
“But what this case shows is that the rule of law stands in this country and that no one is above the law, not even a former president of the United States,” Hines said.
Trump had argued, however, that it will be “impossible” for him to get a fair trial in Washington, DC, a Democrat-controlled city.
In a social media post before his arraignment, the former president said he hoped the “fake case” against him would be “moved to an impartial venue”, such as in West Virginia. “This Indictment is all about Election Interference!!!” he wrote on his Truth Social website.
Alina Habba, Trump’s lawyer, also struck a defiant tone on Thursday, renewing accusations that the former president is being targeted to derail his 2024 campaign. “This is election interference at its finest against the leading candidate right now for president for either party,” Habba told reporters.
“President Trump is under siege in a way that we have never seen before. President Trump and his legal team and everyone on his team will continue to fight – not for him, but for the American people.”
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Though Trump’s legal troubles have mounted in the past few months, his support among Republican Party supporters remains strong, according to recent polling.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released on Monday showed Trump with 54 percent support among likely GOP primary voters, compared with 17 percent for his closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Experts have said this is partly because a large segment of the US electorate views the criminal charges against Trump as part of an effort to impede his 2024 re-election campaign.
Carrie Sheffield, a conservative commentator and senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum, said she believes the charges against Trump amount to “political persecution”.
“As it stands right now, I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to say that these charges have any merit. I believe so far, what we’ve seen is a political persecution,” Sheffield told Al Jazeera earlier on Thursday.
“Many supporters, conservative people, say that the president, Joe Biden, is trying to lock up the chief political rival, and that is very disturbing.”
Still, the scene outside the Washington, DC, court before Trump’s arraignment was muted, with only a few protesters coming out to show their support for the former president.
A Trump supporter holds a 2024 flag in Washington, DC
Trump supporter Dion Cini holds a ‘Trump for President’ flag in Washington, DC [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
“I want to see it with my own eyes, instead of watching it through the fake news,” Dion Cini, a 54-year-old who travelled to the US capital from his home in Brooklyn, New York, told Al Jazeera before the hearing.
He said he had been at every Trump arraignment so far and was not bothered if other supporters did not join him. “I don’t care if anyone else shows up. I’m here and that’s all that matters,” Cini said.