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Inside the courtroom as former President Trump is arraigned on 4 felony charges


Former President Donald Trump just appeared in a Washington, D.C., courtroom for his arraignment on conspiracy charges related to his effort to retain power in 2020. Prosecutors say Trump spread claims he knew were false to create an atmosphere of anger before the U.S. Capitol riot. Trump has pleaded not guilty to four felony counts in a courthouse that's just down the street from the Capitol. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is at the courthouse, and she's with us now to talk more about the case. Hi, Carrie. And tell us what happened in court this afternoon.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. Yeah. It was a big day here at the courthouse. The former president, Donald Trump, has pleaded not guilty to four charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct a proceeding of Congress and conspiracy to deprive people of their voting rights. The former president entered through the back of the courtroom this afternoon, and he talked a lot with his lawyers, seemed pretty animated while he was waiting for the judge to take the bench. He did raise his right hand to be sworn in. And at different times, he told the judge he understood the proceedings. But before coming to court, Trump was quite outspoken on social media, saying he was on his way to be arrested for having challenged what he called a corrupt, rigged and stolen election. He also said, it's a great honor because I'm being arrested for you.

PFEIFFER: Carrie, I happen to drive by the courthouse today and saw that people had lined up overnight to get a front-row seat of this moment of history. What was the atmosphere like when you were there today?

JOHNSON: Yeah. There's a heavy security presence outside. There have been barricades, bike racks put up around the building, yellow U.S. Marshals tape. At one point, there were police on horseback around. There were a scattered number of people outside, both pro- and anti-Trump. The media began to line up 24 hours in advance to try to get a seat in the courtroom or in the overflow today. The whole process here was very smooth and professional. There are separate rooms for reporters to use their computers and watch the proceedings.

PFEIFFER: Today's arraignment is basically the first step in a long process that could lead to a trial. So what happens immediately next?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The former president has been released with minimal conditions. Basically, don't commit another crime, and don't talk with people he believes might be witnesses except through their lawyers. The magistrate judge who presided today, Moxila Upadhyaya, handled today's events. But soon this case is going to be on the desk of District Judge Tanya Chutkan. She's an Obama appointee and a former public defender.

The case was randomly assigned, but Judge Chutkan has a history of cases related to January 6. She may be the toughest sentencer here in the courthouse for rioters who entered the Capitol that day. And she also presided over a lawsuit that paved the way for the House select committee to get a whole bunch of White House documents for the congressional investigation of January 6. In that case, she wrote, presidents are not kings. And she pointed out Donald Trump is a former president, so he doesn't enjoy the same executive privilege. And Trump and the special counsel are due back in court August 28 for a first hearing in this case.

PFEIFFER: That special counsel, Jack Smith, said earlier this week that he wanted a speedy trial. How likely is that to happen?

JOHNSON: You know, I'm not sure. Prosecutor Thomas Windom got up in court today and said this case, like all cases, would benefit from regular order, and that includes a speedy trial. But right after that, Trump's attorney, John Lauro, said there's a lot of material to sift through - paper documents, electronic files. He wants a fair trial, not a fast one. Prosecutors assert Trump knew he was peddling lies - he wasn't just talking but that he was actually taking action, leaning on his vice president Mike Pence, saying Pence, in fact, may have been too honest on the days before the January 6 riot. But Lauro says he's got a lot of defenses, some of which he outlined for you yesterday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Sacha, including possible First Amendment, and a bid maybe to move this case out of D.C. and into West Virginia - seems like a long shot for now, though.

PFEIFFER: Right. He says he's going to make a free speech case. Carrie, as you know, this is the third indictment of Donald Trump this year. He's also been charged in New York and Florida. That's a lot of cases simultaneously. How will this case fit in his calendar, practically speaking?

JOHNSON: You know, I don't know yet. It seems clear that Judge Chutkan wants to move quickly on this. The magistrate said Judge Chutkan will issue a trial date in this case by the end of the month. The trial schedule, of course, is important both legally and politically 'cause the former president, Donald Trump, is the front-runner for the GOP nomination to return to the White House in 2024. But Trump already has trials scheduled for next year in New York City and Florida. And it's not clear that this January 6 case can take priority over those other ones. We're going to have to wait and find out all about that.

PFEIFFER: And we'll be talking with you about that a lot more in coming months and maybe years. That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.