During his arraignment in a Washington, DC, federal court Thursday, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to all charges against him in the case concerning his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
As the result of an investigation led by Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith, Trump was charged Tuesday with four counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy against rights.
Trump’s lawyers have already publicly argued that his false statements about the 2020 election constituted First Amendment-protected speech, providing a preview of his possible legal defense. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison for conspiring to defraud the US, 20 years for each of the obstruction-related charges, and 10 years for the conspiracy against rights charge.
Following his arraignment, Trump told reporters Thursday that it was a “very sad day for America” and that his indictment constituted “persecution of a political opponent.”
“This was never supposed to happen in America,” he said, adding that he’s the clear frontrunner in 2024 Republican primary polls and falsely claiming that he’s leading President Joe Biden by “a lot.” (Most polls conducted in the last month show Biden tied or slightly leading Trump.)
It’s the third time that Trump has had to appear in court to face the unprecedented 78 total criminal counts against him. He remains the only president to have faced any criminal charges, let alone federal charges. Unlike in the previous cases against him, however, the latest indictment has overt consequences on US democracy and the upcoming 2024 election.
Here’s what you need to know.
Will Trump be arrested or jailed?
Trump wasn’t jailed following his arraignment, following a pattern established by his previous arraignments in New York and Miami. Trump was previously fingerprinted in those cases but was not put in handcuffs and did not have his mugshot taken. There were cameras allowed in the courtroom in New York, but not in Miami or DC. As with the previous arraignments, he was allowed to return home.
How did authorities prepare for Trump’s appearance?
DC and federal authorities ramped up security measures ahead of Trump’s court appearance. They reportedly closed streets near the courthouse and set up a barrier around it. There has also been an elevated police presence in the area, and more than 100 protesters showed up to support or denounce Trump. The US Marshals Service has also increased personal security measures for judges involved in Trump’s case.
Though there is no sign that Trump’s supporters are planning any major events in Washington Thursday, SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism, has reported online discussion of a “civil war” and “armed revolution” since the indictment dropped.
What are the charges against him, again?
Trump faces charges for both conspiracy and obstruction. Conspiracy, in general, refers to a plot involving at least two people (in this case, Trump and six unnamed “co-conspirators”) to do something illegal (in this case, trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election). Conspiracy of rights, the final charge, is an organized plot to deprive someone of a constitutional right; here, the right to vote. Obstruction generally refers to an illegal attempt to stop a legal process; in the indictment, that’s the certification of the 2020 electoral votes.
The indictment argues Trump and a group of allies that the document refers to as his “co-conspirators” knew their claims that the 2020 election was stolen were false, but that they spread them anyway — and even launched a “criminal scheme” to support them.
The indictment delves into the first count at length. It centers on that “criminal scheme,” which it claims involved a prolonged pressure and influence campaign that targeted state politicians in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona. When no politician would help him overturn the election, the indictment says Trump went on to use “dishonesty, fraud, and deceit” to assemble a slate of unlawful Electoral College electors in seven states, and that he and his allies lied to many electors to get them to go along with the plan. Then, Trump tried to use the powers of the executive branch — both those given to the Department of Justice and the vice president — to stay in power. Finally, the indictment places the violence of January 6 at Trump’s feet.
The other three counts are addressed in brief. The second count accuses Trump of planning to stop the certification of the electoral vote; the third, of him actually stopping the vote, and the fourth, of conspiring with others to disenfranchise Americans.
“Each of these conspiracies—which built on the widespread mistrust [Trump] was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud—targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election,” the indictment reads.
What happens after Trump’s arraignment?
As with the cases against Trump in New York and Florida, the January 6 case could extend well into the 2024 campaign season — or even beyond the election.
Smith has sought a speedy trial in the classified documents case, which is currently scheduled for May 2024, and his team said it hopes for the same with the January 6 case. As with the trial in the documents case, Trump’s team said Thursday that a speedy trial would be impossible, given the scope of the charges. In all of his legal proceedings, Trump has tried to push trials later than the 2024 election to accommodate his campaign calendar.
The judge set the next hearing in the January 6 case for August 28 and gave both legal teams a week to propose a trial date.
Kevin O’Brien, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said it’s unclear whether the January 6 case can feasibly be decided before the 2024 election. It is bigger in scope and therefore may take longer to resolve, but also carries significant public interest.
“The subject matter has had direct implications for our democratic process. And you can argue the voters should be exposed to that evidence and know [the jury verdict] in that case,” he said.
If Trump wins the 2024 election, then it “would be a brouhaha,” O’Brien said. Any unresolved federal charges would likely become moot under the longstanding DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But if he’s convicted before assuming office, that would create a constitutional question: whether he could later pardon himself.
Correction, August 3, 12 pm ET: A previous version of this story referred to Trump being indicted on Monday; he was indicted on Tuesday, August 1.
Update, August 3: This story was originally published on August 3 and has been updated multiple times, most recently with additional information now that Trump has delivered remarks following his arraignment.