Former US president Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Thursday on charges that he led a conspiracy to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Mr Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, entered his plea during a brief hearing at the same Washington court where hundreds of his supporters have been convicted and sentenced for their roles in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
“This is a very sad day for America,” he said after the hearing, from an airport near Washington before boarding a plane to New Jersey.
“This is a persecution of a political opponent.
“So if you can’t beat him, you persecute him or you prosecute him – we can’t let this happen in America.”
Earlier, throngs of journalists gathered outside the courthouse, a short walk from the Capitol, but only a smattering of Trump supporters turned up in the heavily Democratic city.
Several drivers passing in front of the courthouse slowed down and screamed “lock him up” before speeding off.
“He needs his day in court,” said David Valentine, a Trump supporter.
“So hopefully what will come of this is he'll be able to prove himself innocent.”
Enraged Trump supporters stormed the Capitol after two months of the then-president refusing to concede to Democrat Joe Biden and making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud during the election.
In a 45-page indictment on Tuesday, special counsel Jack Smith accused Mr Trump of repeatedly lying about the 2020 results and engaging in a conspiracy to “disenfranchise millions of voters” by installing puppet representatives to support his election claims in Congress.
Dawn Fichtner, who lives in Washington, took the day off to stand outside the courthouse.
“Donald Trump conspired with other people to overthrow our democracy and basically overthrow our entire way of life,” Ms Fichtner told The National.
“It was important for me to show up here to prove that this is not a two-tiered system of justice, that even the most powerful among us have to be held accountable for their crimes.”
Mr Trump faces four charges, including conspiracy to defraud the US, to deprive citizens of their right to have their votes counted and to obstruct an official proceeding.
The most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
His claims of having won the election were “false, and the defendant knew they were false”, the indictment states.
“Donald Trump is a traitor who failed to live up to the pledge that he gave to the constitution and must be held accountable if America is to survive,” said Eric Lamar, a Washington resident who was standing outside the courthouse with a large laminated sign.
In a series of posts on his Truth Social media site, Mr Trump said the indictment was a contrivance to derail his run for the White House, while his campaign issued a statement comparing the Biden administration to fascist regimes.
Oren Tasini, who is visiting from Florida, was walking by the courthouse with his wife when he heard that the indictment was taking place.
“This trial means that the rule of law applies to everybody, not just to poor people, but to rich people as well and powerful people,” Mr Tasini told The National.
“I think it's likely he'll be convicted of a number of crimes."
The indictment is the third in four months for Mr Trump.
He has also pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he retained classified documents after leaving office and New York state charges that he falsified documents in connection with hush-money payments made to an adult film star in 2016.