Former US president Donald Trump has arrived at a federal court in the US capital to answer historic charges of leading a criminal conspiracy that sought to defraud the American people by overturning the 2020 election.
The 77-year-old billionaire has already been charged in two other criminal cases, and the new conspiracy charges raise the prospect of his being further embroiled in legal proceedings at the height of next year’s election campaign. Of all the cases, arguably the charges in this one – essentially that he attempted to overturn democracy – are the most serious.
Mr Trump repeated his “stolen elections” claim and said it was an “honour” to be arrested.
His indictment comes as one of his former closest allies has hit out at the Republican frontrunner for president claiming he “knew well he lost the election”.
Bill Barr, who was Attorney-General in the Trump administration, told CNN that his actions, as outlined in the indictment, were “despicable”.
Shortly before leaving his gold club in Bedminster, New Jersey, close to New York City, for the Washington DC court, Mr Trump defiantly doubled down on his baseless claim the election was “stolen.”
“I am now going to Washington, DC to be arrested for having challenged a corrupt, rigged and stolen election,” he posted on his Truth Social site, repeating what special counsel Jack Smith has called the “lies” about the 2020 vote that are at the heart of the indictment against him.
“It is a great honour, because I am being arrested for you,” Mr Trump told his social media followers.
Metal barricades and municipal trucks formed a security ring around the E Barrett Prettyman courthouse where Mr Trump’s arrest and arraignment will take place within sight of the US Capitol that was stormed by his supporters on January 6, 2021.
Police and sniffer dogs gathered outside the court, where scores of reporters from the world’s media had camped overnight to seek a spot inside.
Mr Trump is expected to enter a plea of not guilty at a hearing at 4pm, Thursday (6am Wednesday AEST) before magistrate judge Moxila Upadhyaya.
He is likely to be fingerprinted but not have a mugshot taken.
The accusations that Mr Trump and six unnamed co-conspirators plotted to up-end the 2020 election result is the most serious of the cases threatening to derail his comeback bid.
‘He knew well he lost’
Mr Trump’s lawyer John Lauro has characterised the indictment as an attack on the First Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees freedoms of speech.
But former Attorney-General Barr said that was a nonsense argument.
“They are not attacking his First Amendment right. He can say whatever he wants, he can even lie. He can even tell people that the election was stolen when he knew better,” Mr Barr told CNN.
“But that does not protect you from entering into a conspiracy.”
Mr Barr added that initially he thought it was possible Mr Trump may have genuinely thought that the election was rigged.
“At first I wasn’t sure, but I have come to believe he knew well he had lost the election.”
‘Fuelled by lies’
Earlier, Mr Trump slammed the alleged “unprecedented weaponisation” of the Justice Department in a post on Truth Social, accusing President Joe Biden of seeking to charge him with “as many crimes as can be concocted.”
“But soon, in 2024, it will be our turn,” he wrote.
Mr Biden, for his part, kept up his reticence. When asked during a morning bike ride while vacationing in Delaware if he would be following the arraignment, his response was a curt “No.”
Mr Smith, a former war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, unveiled a 45-page indictment of Trump on Tuesday charging him with conspiracy to defraud the United States and attempting to disenfranchise American voters with his false claims that he won the November 2020 election.
“The purpose of the conspiracy was to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election by using knowingly false claims of election fraud,” the indictment said.
Mr Smith linked Mr Trump’s actions following his loss to Mr Biden directly to the attack on the Capitol, which he called an “unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy.” “It was fuelled by lies,” Mr Smith said.
Mr Trump is scheduled to go on trial in Florida in May of next year on charges that he took top secret government documents to his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida and refused to return them.
The twice-impeached former president also faces criminal charges in New York for allegedly paying election-eve hush money to a porn star.
He has pleaded not guilty in both those cases.
The election plot allegedly included attempts to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence into throwing out Electoral College votes at the January 6 joint session of Congress called to certify Mr Biden’s win, which he eventually refused to do.
Although Mr Trump’s arraignment will be before a magistrate judge, the actual case is to be heard by US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, an appointee of former Democratic president Barack Obama.
Ms Chutkan, 61, ruled against Mr Trump in 2021 when he filed a suit asserting executive privilege to block documents from being handed over to a congressional committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.
MS Chutkan has also heard nearly three dozen cases involving participants in the Capitol riot and has handed out stiff sentences.
As president, Mr Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for seeking political dirt on Mr Biden from Ukraine and over the events of January 6 but was acquitted by the Senate both times