Donald Trump declared a “very sad day for America” as he pleaded not guilty to orchestrating a criminal plot to overturn the results of the 2020 US presidential election.
At a historic court hearing in Washington on Thursday, the former president denied four charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Following his arraignment, which lasted about 30 minutes, Mr Trump said: “This is a very sad day for America. This is the persecution of the person that is leading by very, very substantial numbers in the Republican primary and leading [Joe] Biden by a lot.
“So if you can’t beat him, you persecute him, or you prosecute him. We can’t let this happen in America.”
Speaking on an airport runway outside the city, the former president added that he was struck by the “filth and the decay” and the “broken buildings and walls and the graffiti” in Washington.
He said: “This is not the place that I left. It is a very sad thing to see it.”
During the hearing Mr Trump, dressed in a blue suit and red tie, stood and gave his name as “Donald J. Trump – John.”
Answering questions from US Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya, he said he was 77-years-old, and confirmed he had not consumed alcohol or drugs.
The judge then outlined the four charges contained in a 45-page indictment.
Mr Trump was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction, and conspiracy against the right to vote.
The most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, he was told.
Mr Trump responded clearly that he was pleading “not guilty” to all charges.
Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the case, sat in the front row of the court.
Mr Smith has directly linked the former president to the storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6, 2021 when some of his supporters tried to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
The judge set the next court date for Aug 28, and said Mr Trump would not be required to attend.
Mr Trump claimed the expanding list of criminal charges against him would guarantee his return to the White House next year.
Mr Trump later claimed Thursday had been a “very good day” as he doubled down on his allegations of politician interference.
Writing on Truth Social, he said: “Considering the fact that I had to fly to a filthy, dirty, falling apart, & very unsafe Washington, D.C., today, & that I was then arrested by my political opponent, who is losing badly to me in the polls, crooked Joe Biden, it was a very good day!”
Republicans rallied around him as he accused Democrats of an “unprecedented weaponisation” of the justice system.
On his Truth Social website, Mr Trump wrote: “I need one more indictment to ensure my election! Soon, in 2024, it will be our turn.”
He has so far been indicted in three separate criminal cases.
In addition to the one in Washington, he has been charged over possession of classified documents in Florida, and a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in New York. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
He may soon face a fourth indictment in Georgia, where he is being investigated over attempts to overturn the state’s 2020 election result.
Thursday’s hearing took place at a court building within sight of the US Capitol, which was stormed by supporters of Mr Trump on Jan 6, 2021 as they tried to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
At least 1,000 people who took part in the riot that day have since been defendants in the same courthouse where Mr Trump appeared.
Earlier, he had left his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey at 1pm local time.
His convoy of black SUVs weaved through greens, bunkers and trees as media helicopters hovered overhead.
Mr Trump wrote on Truth Social: “I am now going to Washington DC to be arrested for having challenged a corrupt, rigged and stolen election. It is a great honour because I am being arrested for you.”
He boarded his private plane at Newark and flew to Reagan National Airport, followed by a short journey to the court, where he was driven into an underground car park.
There was heavy security including barricades outside the building as supporters and opponents gathered.
Aides said Mr Trump was “frustrated” at having to again go through the process of being fingerprinted at a court.
The prosecution is seeking a quick trial but Mr Trump’s lawyers, as in his other cases, will work to delay it until after the election in November 2024.
That will include attempting to move the case out of Washington.
Mr Trump said it was “impossible to get a fair trial in Washington D.C., which is over 95 per cent anti-Trump”.
He said the case would “hopefully be moved to an impartial venue, such as the politically unbiased nearby State of West Virginia!”
In 2020 Mr Trump won West Virginia in a landslide.
Mr Trump claimed Democrats, through the Department of Justice, were charging him with “as many crimes as can be concocted” so that he was “forced to spend large amounts of time and money” to defend himself.
Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker, said: “This is so blatantly disgustingly political that is has no business being in the Department of Justice.”
Eric Trump, the former president’s son, said he would “fight like hell” against the charges.
A new poll showed 69 per cent of Republicans agree with Mr Trump that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.
Mr Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor, has called the attack on the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021 an “unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy.”
The Special Counsel alleges that the attack was “fueled by lies by the defendant,” which were “targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the US government.”
The case will ultimately focus on whether Mr Trump knew the claims he was making about election fraud were false.
His legal team is expected to argue that he genuinely believed the election was fraudulent.
They will say his words were protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, and that he relied at the time on the advice of lawyers.
Ultimately, the trial will be presided over by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
Despite his legal entanglements Mr Trump maintains a large lead in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a distant second.
Mr Trump’s standing with Republican voters has risen since he was first indicted earlier this year in New York.
He has raised millions of dollars from donors in the wake of previous court appearances.
However, in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 37 per cent of independent voters said they were less likely to vote for him in 2024 because of the indictments.
Among the competing demonstrators outside the court in Washington one held a “save our democracy” sign, while another waved a flag with the slogan “Trump or death”.
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