Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a Washington, DC, federal courthouse Thursday to federal criminal charges stemming from his plots to overturn the 2020 election, in a 27-minute proceeding where the first flashes of the defense’s tactics emerged.
It was the third occasion that Trump was arraigned on criminal charges this year, and the hearing marked the public debut of the team of lawyers in special counsel Jack Smith’s office who will be leading the prosecution.
Here are takeaways from the hearing:
In the classified documents case that Smith has also brought against the former president in June, the Trump team has sought to slow-walk the schedule for the proceedings. There were hints of a similar strategy in the first hearing in the election subversion case.
Much of Thursday’s hearing was staid and to-script. But the tone sharpened when the judge said the prosecutors should file recommendations for the trial date and length in seven days, and that the Trump team should respond within seven days after that.
Trump attorney John Lauro told the judge that they would need to look at the amount of evidence they’ll be receiving from the government – which he said could be “massive” — before they could address that question.
“There is no question in our mind, your honor, that Mr. Trump is entitled to a fair and just trial,” Lauro said, nodding both to Trump’s right to a speedy trial as well as his right to due process.
Prosecutor Thomas Windom previewed that the special counsel would propose this case unfolding under a normal timeline under the Speedy Trial Act, which sets a time limit – unless certain exemptions are sought – for criminal cases to go to trial.
Judge Tanya Chutkan intends to schedule a trial date at an August 28 hearing, a magistrate judge said Thursday. Before the trial, Chutkan may need to preside over disputes over whether the case should be dismissed due to legal flaws, when the trial should start and what evidence can be presented to a jury.
Trump may argue that a trial should wait until after the 2024 election, an argument his legal team made unsuccessfully in the classified documents case, and his lawyers have also previewed efforts to seek a change of venue for the case, with claims that the DC jury pool is politically biased against the former president and 2024 Republican front-runner.
There’s likely to be more added to the pile of legal problems on the former president’s plate.
In Georgia, in the coming weeks, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to bring charges in her election subversion probe and it’s possible that Trump will be indicted in that.
And then there’s the other case from Smith alleging Trump mishandled classified documents from his White House and then obstructed the probe into the materials. That case is currently scheduled to go trial next May, and there will be regular pre-trial proceedings (at which, Trump is not required to appear) before that. There’s also the criminal case that Manhattan prosecutors brought against Trump for a 2016 campaign hush money scheme, currently slated for trial in March.
Additionally there’s number of civil lawsuits he faces, including a second defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll, well as the New York attorney general’s civil fraud case against his family and businesses.
This court calendar is overlaid against his 2024 campaign schedule as well. The first Republican presidential debate, for instance, is on August 23.
Though Trump will not be required to appear in court for hearings on pre-trial matters, he may seek to do so, if he embraces a strategy of making a spectacle out of the election subversion case. Speaking on the airport tarmac, Trump made brief remarks that the prosecution was political after Thursday’s hearing, and he routinely fundraises off of every new development putting him in deeper legal trouble.
Thursday marked the public debut of the Smith team that will handle the election subversion prosecution. (Some of the special counsel lawyers who are leading the classified documents case were previously involved in the public proceedings stemming from the lawsuit Trump filed last year challenging the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago).
Smith himself attended the hearing, as he did for Trump’s first appearance in the classified documents case in Florida earlier this year. As the courtroom waited for the hearing to start, Smith and Trump occasionally looked over at one another – Smith looking towards Trump more often than Trump looked over to him.
Windom – who moved from the US attorney’s office in Maryland to play a central role in the federal election subversion investigation, spoke on behalf of the government Thursday. Also at the prosecutors’ table was Molly Gaston, an alum of the DC US attorney’s public integrity section, which handles some of the most politically sensitive cases for the Justice Department.
Gaston was a lead prosecutor on last year’s contempt of Congress case against ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and also worked on the prosecutions of Rick Gates – a former Trump campaign aide – and Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman. Gaston was also present in the courtroom Tuesday when the foreperson of the grand jury for the 2020 election probe returned the indictment against Trump.
Trump was represented by Lauro and Todd Blanche at Thursday’s hearing. Lauro is a relatively recent addition to the Trump legal team and is handling the 2020-election related matters.
Blanche, meanwhile, has been across several Trump cases. He is representing Trump in Smith’s classified documents prosecution as well is in the 2016 campaign hush money case brought by Manhattan’s district attorney.
Evan Corcoran, who has not formally entered an appearance in the case, attended the hearing, sitting on the row in the courtroom well behind the defense table.
Lauro did the talking for the defense at Thursday’s hearing. He’s also made himself a prominent defender of the former president in the public arena, with multiple appearance in recent days on CNN and other networks.
While the defense lawyers were mostly there Thursday to walk Trump through the steps of a first appearance and arraignment, Lauro had the opportunity to show the vigor with which he’ll argue on behalf of his client. He didn’t get into the substantive defense arguments that he has previewed in TV hits, but his insistence that the Trump team may need more time before nailing down a trial schedule was emphatic.
“All that we would ask, your honor, is the time to fairly defend our client. And to do that we need a little time,” he said.
While Trump’s hearing Thursday largely followed the script of the arraignments he’s had in the classified documents and the 2016 hush money criminal cases against him. But it was happening in a courthouse that has had to constantly had to process and re-process the violence of January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol that his election lies helped provoke.
For the last two-and-a-half years since the attack, the former president has been a stalking horse in the DC courthouse, which has hosted the proceedings for more than 1,000 Trump supporters who have been have been charged for the riot.
Judges have obliquely acknowledged the role the former president played in egging on the mob, while recounting the direct view they had to the violence that day. Defense attorneys and prosecutors have argued over how much of the blame should be placed on him. Metropolitan and Capitol police officers are frequently seen in the courthouse to testify about the physical and psychological trauma they suffered from the riot. And defendants and their families, in their pleas for mercy, have invoked Trump as well.
In the election subversion case, Trump’s attorneys have previewed arguments that the case should be moved elsewhere, given the city’s political bent. But the DC federal courthouse is where hundreds of his supporters have received fair trials, with some securing acquittals, in the Capitol mob cases.