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What it was like inside the courtroom for Trump's arraignment

Courtroom 22 at the D.C. federal courthouse has seen its fair share of defendants over the years. But never a former president.

That changed Thursday afternoon, when former President Trump entered and proceeded to be arraigned on four criminal charges stemming from his efforts to remain in power after the 2020 election.

The Hill was one of a few outlets selected by a random drawing to have a seat in the courtroom and witness the proceeding in person.

Reporters were ushered into the second-floor courtroom about an hour and a half before the arraignment began. Law enforcement officers required all electronics be turned off before entering the room, cutting the reporters off from the outside world. 

“As the wait began for Trump’s arrival from New Jersey, the four-row public gallery in the back of the courtroom and the jury box filled up with law clerks, court staff, sketch artists and even a few members of the public.”

Yosi Zelalem, 22, a George Washington University student, was one of those lucky few.

“How does he look in person?” Zelalem said he wanted to know, referring to Trump.

Zelalem indicated he was hired by The Associated Press to wait in line outside the courthouse from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Thursday to save a spot for one of their reporters — a practice that has become the norm for many major news outlets at Trump’s arraignments.

After he was relieved, Zelalem said he took a 90-minute nap and headed straight back to try to get a spot himself. He was one of the first five members of the public in line who got a coveted seat.

Seated on the opposite side of the courtroom in the back row were multiple federal judges who serve on the court. They included Chief District Judge James Boasberg, District Judge Amy Berman Jackson and District Judge Randy Moss. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who has been assigned to oversee the case, did not attend. Those judges have all presided over Jan. 6 cases previously, and their appearance Thursday was an unusual occurrence.

Multiple family members of Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya, who presided over Trump’s arraignment, were also seated in the gallery. 

Special counsel Jack Smith walked in at about 3:45 p.m. He sat just in front of the gallery, behind the prosecution table.

Trump, wearing his signature red tie, entered about five minutes later from a separate door and walked to his seat with his lawyers, Todd Blanche and John Lauro. Before sitting down, Trump acknowledged one of his other attorneys, Evan Corcoran, who was already seated in the room. Corcoran previously represented Trump in another federal case centered on classified documents.

The former president and his attorneys waited for the judge for 24 minutes. Nearly a dozen federal agents stood behind him. In all, roughly 100 people were in the room.

Trump whispered with his attorneys as they waited, primarily with Blanche. The two men appeared to crack a few jokes to each other, laughing at times. Trump spoke rather quietly and only a few short phrases were heard in the gallery.

“They were forced to change,” Trump was heard saying.

Trump and his attorneys also perused through a stack of papers in front of them as they waited for the judge. At one point, Trump pointed out something to Blanche on the papers and proceeded to hold them up vertically.

Smith, who was seated roughly 20 feet from Trump, glanced over toward the former president at times, but otherwise looked straight ahead. At one moment, he put one arm up on the railing behind him. He was also seen chatting with an aide next to him as they, too, waited for the judge.

Upadhyaya entered the room at 4:15 p.m., and the arraignment began.

“This is criminal case 23-cr-257, United States of America v. Trump,” an aide to the judge said as the proceeding started.

Moments later, Trump raised his right hand and was sworn in.

“I do,” Trump said, his first words during the proceeding.

Upadhyaya then asked Trump a few basic questions. 

His name? 

“Donald J. Trump. John,” Trump responded.

His age? 

“Seven seven. Seventy-seven,” Trump said.

Throughout the arraignment, Trump sat up in his chair and faced Upadhyaya. He put his hands on his lap as he listened to the judge.

Trump rarely glanced at prosecutors, but he did look over when the judge reminded them of their obligations to turn over exculpatory evidence.

Next, the judge asked for Trump’s plea.

“Not guilty,” Trump said slowly, raising his head as he entered his plea.

The former president spoke little else during the proceeding, largely to answer some additional yes-or-no questions from the judge.

The judge read to Trump the conditions of his release and noted it is a crime to try to influence a witness. She asked Trump if he understood.

“Are you prepared to comply?” the judge asked of Trump.

“Yes,” Trump responded.

After setting his next court date — Aug. 28 — the proceeding wrapped up.

Trump exited the room, and within minutes his motorcade was seen leaving the courthouse where he was headed to the airport back to New Jersey.

Ella Lee contributed.

Updated 7:40 p.m.

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