Former President Donald J. Trump appeared in federal court in Washington on Thursday for the first time to face charges that he conspired to remain in office despite his 2020 election loss, pleading not guilty at a hearing conducted in the shadow of the Capitol, where his supporters, fueled by his lies, had rampaged to block the peaceful transfer of power.
Mr. Trump was booked and fingerprinted before entering the courtroom and offering a soft-spoken “not guilty” to each of the four counts lodged against him on Tuesday by Jack Smith, the special counsel.
He was allowed to leave court without paying any bail or agreeing to any travel restrictions. A first pretrial hearing was set for Aug. 28.
Mr. Trump arrived in Washington in the remarkable position of being under indictment in three separate cases as he is running for president again. In addition to the election case, he faces federal charges of mishandling classified documents and accusations in New York related to hush money payments to a porn star.
But even as he sped in and out of Federal District Court in about an hour and a half, he was leading his rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination by wide margins and remained defiant.
“This is a very sad day for America,” Mr. Trump said at the airport in Washington before boarding his plane back to his golf club in New Jersey. “This is a persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America.”
Holding his umbrella for him as he emerged from his SUV on the tarmac was Walt Nauta, his personal aide, who was charged alongside him in the classified-documents case.
Thursday’s hearing was held inside a courthouse that has been the venue for hundreds of trials stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. His lawyers used the procedural hearing to hint at one of his central defense strategies — a request to delay a second pending federal trial for months, if not years.
The arraignment took place about six weeks after he entered another not-guilty plea in a Miami courtroom after being indicted on charges of illegally retaining classified documents at his resort in Florida and obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim them.
Thursday’s arraignment had deeper historical resonance. It began a process in which federal prosecutors will seek to hold Mr. Trump to account for what they say was his refusal to adhere to core democratic principles, a trial that will be held little more than a mile and a half from the White House and at the foot of the Capitol complex where his supporters chanted two and a half years ago for his vice president to be hanged and tried to block Congress from certifying President Biden’s victory.
The indictment charged that Mr. Trump lied repeatedly to promote false claims of fraud, sought to bend the Justice Department toward supporting those claims and oversaw a scheme to create false slates of electors pledged to him in states that Mr. Biden had won. And it described how he ultimately pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, to use so-called fake electors to subvert the certification of the election at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, that was cut short by the violence at the Capitol.
Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya, who oversaw the roughly half-hour intake hearing on Thursday, ordered Mr. Trump not to communicate about the case with any witnesses except through lawyers or in the presence of lawyers. She set the first hearing before the trial judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, for Aug. 28 — the date chosen by Mr. Trump’s lawyers from among the three options she provided and the latest of them.
Delaying the proceedings as much as possible is widely expected to be part of Mr. Trump’s legal strategy, given that he could effectively call off federal cases against him if he wins the 2024 election.
The jockeying began on Thursday. After Judge Upadhyaya gave prosecutors a week to propose a trial date, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, John F. Lauro, complained that the government had had years to investigate and that he and his colleagues were going to need time to defend their client. She directed him to bring it up with the trial judge and prosecutors to respond within five days of his filing.
“Mr. Trump is entitled to a fair and just trial,” Mr. Lauro said after Justice Department prosecutors requested invocation of a provision that could result in a start date within 90 days.
Mr. Trump’s defense team has signaled that it intends to employ a variety of arguments to fight the charges.
They include asserting that Mr. Trump had a First Amendment right to promote his view that the 2020 election was marred by fraud, and making a case that Mr. Trump sincerely believed his claims that he had been robbed of victory, an argument intended to make it more difficult for prosecutors to establish that he intended to violate the law.
The defense team has also suggested that it will argue that Mr. Trump was relying on advice from lawyers when he sought to block certification of Mr. Biden’s victory, and that it could seek to move the trial out of Washington — a Democratic stronghold — to a more politically friendly setting.
The wrangling over the timetable underscored the logistical and political complexities facing Mr. Trump and his team as they juggle three criminal proceedings and a presidential campaign.
To give a sense of the crowded calendar his legal team will face, some of its members are scheduled to be in Fort Pierce, Fla., for a hearing in the classified-documents case on Aug. 25, and then to turn around and be in Washington on Aug. 28. Mr. Trump does not need to be in the courtroom for the pretrial hearings.
Judge Upadhyaya arrived for the hearing 14 minutes late — creating long periods of awkward silence and pen-twiddling as Mr. Trump and his team sat across from equally antsy prosecutors.
While the lawyers sparred, most eyes in the courtroom were on the second face-to-face encounter between the former president and Mr. Smith, who has filed charges that could put the 77-year-old Mr. Trump in a federal prison for the rest of his life. This time, unlike in Miami, the two men were positioned in such a way that they could be visible to each other.
Mr. Smith entered the courtroom — normally used by the district’s chief judge, James E. Boasberg — about 15 minutes before the scheduled 4 p.m. start, with his lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas P. Windom, and positioned himself in a chair behind his team, with his back against the rail dividing participants from the gallery.
Mr. Trump walked in very slowly in his signature long red tie and long blue suit coat, surveying the room and mouthing a greeting to no one in particular. He glanced briefly in the direction of Mr. Smith — whom he has called “deranged” — but he did not seem to make eye contact.
Mr. Trump spoke in respectful tones when questioned by Judge Upadhyaya, the magistrate judge who presided over the proceeding.
Yet if he had seemed chastened and ill at ease in Florida, he was more his defiant self on Thursday.
When she asked his name, he replied, “Donald J. Trump” and then added “John!”
When she asked his age, he raised his voice a notch and intoned, “Seven-seven!”
At the end of the proceeding, Judge Upadhyaya thanked Mr. Trump, who said, “Thank you, your honor.” On the “all rise” command, he stood up. One of his lawyers put his arm on Mr. Trump’s back and guided him away from the table and out the courtroom door.
Mr. Smith, known for his implacable demeanor, remained still for most of the hearing. But after Mr. Trump’s entourage exited, he appeared to let his guard down, smiling broadly as he shook hands with F.B.I. agents who had been working on the case.
But the gravity of the case weighed heavily on participants and observers alike.
At least three of the district court judges who have presided over trials of the Trump supporters charged for their roles in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 filed into the back row of the visitors’ gallery to observe. One was Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who had criticized what she called Mr. Trump’s “irresponsible and knowingly false claims that the election was stolen” in imposing a harsh sentence on a rioter who had bludgeoned a Capitol Police officer into unconsciousness.
Outside the courthouse, security was heavy, with officers on foot and on horseback and barricades erected on the sidewalk. The crowd, made up of Mr. Trump’s critics and his supporters, clogged the area outside the courthouse, with some carrying pro-Trump signs and others shouting anti-Trump slogans, including “Lock him up!”
Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.