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Trump Pleads “Not Guilty” at Courthouse That Was Steps Away From Jan. 6 Violence

Legal experts have noted that Trump’s First Amendment defense plan likely isn’t as strong as he might believe.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at Reagan National Airport following an arraignment in a Washington, D.C. court on August 3, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.

On Thursday afternoon, former President Donald Trump was formally arraigned in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C. on charges laid out within special counsel Jack Smith’s latest indictment order against him, which was issued earlier this week.

Trump was charged with four crimes relating to his incitement of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and his broader involvement in schemes to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which he lost to President Joe Biden.

Trump’s motorcade arrived at the courthouse for the historic event midafternoon, passing along a route that took him in front of the Capitol building itself — the scene where hundreds of his loyalists had attacked Congress a year and a half ago with hopes of disrupting the official counting of the Electoral College.

Trump walked into the courtroom on Thursday after Smith and his team had already arrived, eyeing the prosecutor at one point but not making direct eye contact, according to reporters inside. He whispered many times to his lawyers during the hearing, and only spoke to the judge to say his name and enter his plea.

Trump pleaded not guilty to all four of the charges made against him, which included:

  • conspiracy to defraud the United States through efforts to use false election fraud claims to overturn the election;
  • conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding through his and his allies’ plans to disrupt the certification process, including the fake electors plot;
  • obstruction of an official proceeding through actual efforts to block and delay the certification process for weeks before it happened; and
  • conspiracy against Americans’ civil rights, citing a post-Civil War-era statute that makes it a federal crime to “oppress, threaten and intimidate” people in their right to take part as voters in an election.

The ordeal lasted around 30 minutes, although media coverage of the event lasted much longer.

An official trial date hasn’t been set yet. Smith’s office will likely propose a trial date within one week, after which Trump’s lawyers will respond with their own suggestions for when the trial should begin. It’s likely that Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to oversee this case and the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation, will ask for a speedy trial, while Trump will request a long delay, ostensibly by arguing that a quicker timeframe would interfere with the 2024 race. (If Trump wins the 2024 election, he will likely order all the charges against him to be dropped through the appointment of a new attorney general.)

Trump may have a difficult time, however, convincing the judge presiding over his case, Judge Tanya Chutkan, to agree with his terms to delay the court. Chutkan has ruled previously in a Trump-related case, dismissing his claims of executive privilege by stating matter-of-factly that “presidents are not kings, and [Trump] is not president.”

After leaving the courthouse and arriving at the airport, Trump stopped to speak to reporters, calling the event a “very sad day for America” and alleging, without evidence, that the charges against him were politically motivated.

“This is a persecution of a political opponent,” Trump said, implying without proof that the decision to charge him was based on Biden’s desire to do so ahead of the 2024 election. “This was never supposed to happen in America.”

“If you can’t beat him, you persecute him or you prosecute him,” Trump added.

Such allegations by Trump have never been substantiated. As Trump made such unwarranted suggestions, The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reminded readers of that publication that, even as he said “his indictment was the kind of thing that was never supposed to happen in America … he campaigned in 2016 on a message of ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton, his opponent.”

Trump’s lawyers have already signaled that they plan to mount a First Amendment speech rights defense for their client, arguing that charges against him are undue because he has a legal right to claim, even wrongly, that the election he lost was tainted by fraud. But legal experts have said that defense won’t hold up in court, particularly since Smith acknowledged that right within the indictment document, but laid out the case that Trump’s actions — not just his speech — were problematic and likely illegal.

As Vox’s Ian Millhouser explained, Trump is being accused by Smith of “repeatedly…pressuring other government officials to commit criminal acts of election fraud, and it is well established that soliciting another individual to commit a crime is not protected by the First Amendment.” The fact that Smith also showcases that Trump knew his claims were false is another reason why his First Amendment defense may falter, Millhouser said.

“There’s no First Amendment right to participate in a conspiracy,” said University of Minnesota law professor Alan Rozenshtein.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at George Washington University, made a similar assessment.

“Saying a statement in isolation is one thing. But when you say it to another person and the two of you speak in a way and exchange information in a way that leads to action — that you want to take action to do something with that speech — then arguably it becomes unprotected,” Franks said.

“Insofar as he’s giving instructions, and planning to do things that are themselves illegal and involve action, like the signing of false certificates and so forth, that’s not a very good defense,” said Cornell University constitutional law expert Michael Dorf.

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