When former President Donald Trump appears in a Washington, DC, courtroom on Thursday he will be doing so in a building that had a direct view of the violence that unfurled at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Trump is scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge on four criminal charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The script will be similar to the initial appearances Trump has made in the two other criminal cases he faces – the New York state charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office for his 2016 campaign hush money scheme, and the federal prosecution in Florida that special counsel Jack Smith is leading as well, alleging Trump mishandled classified documents.
Unlike those other cases, however, this hearing will play out in a courthouse, the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, that has been the central vehicle of accountability for the January 6 attack on democracy.
More than 1,000 Trump supporters who participated in the Capitol breach have also gone through the motions of a first appearance hearing that the former president will go through himself.
And day after day, the courthouse has been where judges, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, jurors and court officials have had to constantly revisit the significance of the assault on Congress and what drove it.
It’s a dynamic that has weighed on Judge Beryl Howell, who recently stepped down from her role as the DC district court’s chief judge, a position that put her in charge of deciding many of the privilege disputes that ultimately allowed federal prosecutors to access key evidence in Smith’s case
“Just outside this courthouse … are visible reminders of the January 6 riot and assault on the Capitol,” Howell said at a January 2021 sentencing of a rioter.
During that proceeding, she stressed that the Capitol attack “was not a peaceful protest,” but rather, it was “hundreds of people” who “came to Washington, DC, to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.”
Trump has decried the ongoing special counsel investigation and charges as politically motivated since he’s the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
He faces four counts, including conspiring to defraud the United States and to obstruct an official proceeding – the latter a charge that has already successfully been brought against rioters who breached the Capitol.
In another charge brought against the former president, prosecutors are relying on a Reconstruction-era civil rights law that prohibits conspiracies to deprive a person of their rights – in this case, “the right to vote and have one’s vote counted.”
Trump, the special counsel said in the indictment, “was determined to remain in power” after losing the 2020 election and, with six unindicted co-conspirators, orchestrated a plot to overturn the results on and leading up to January 6.
Prosecutors argue that Trump exploited the “chaos” and the “violence” of January 6 in a bid to keep alive their efforts to overturn his electoral loss.
The indictment also alleges that Trump and his co-conspirators effectively tricked individuals from seven targeted states into creating and submitting certificates asserting they were legitimate electors.
Trump has already been a feature in the proceedings against the rioters, whose conduct that day was motivated in part by the election lies that underlay the charges that the former president now faces.
Video of his speech at the Ellipse on January 6 have been played at numerous hearings. In the case brought against the Proud Boys, prosecutors fought aggressively to show the clip of the former president telling the far-right group at a September 2020 presidential debate to “stand back and stand by.”
As a legal defense, the efforts by Capitol rioters to pin their actions on Trump have had limited success. But the argument has nonetheless been prevalent in pleas by riot defendants and their families for leniency.
“My father’s name wasn’t on all the flags that were there that day, that everyone was carrying that day. He is not the leader,” the daughter of a rioter said tearfully at a sentencing proceeding last year.
The defendant, Guy Reffitt, was sentenced to 87 months in prison after bringing a gun to the Capitol during the riot and threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Metropolitan and US Capitol police officers are regularly seen in the building, often to appear as witnesses. Victims of the riot have repeatedly testified to the serious physical and mental injuries they suffered as a result of the assault.
“My physical scars, bruises and wounds have healed, but my mental trauma haunts me to this day,” Metropolitan Police Officer Christopher Owens told the court ahead of the sentencing of several Oath Keepers leaders who were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges.
Some of the judges themselves have also opined on the role that Trump played, while his supporters who breached the Capitol that day have so far borne the brunt of the legal consequences.
After one rioter’s conviction, US District Judge Reggie Walton said that “our democracy is in trouble because unfortunately we have charlatans, like the former president, in my view, who don’t care about democracy and only care about power.”
The defendant, Dustin Thompson, testified that he felt as if he was entering the Capitol at the directions of Trump.
“If the President is giving you almost an order to do something, I felt obligated to do that,” Thompson said.
Another judge, Royce Lamberth, recently found rioter Alan Hostetter guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding – one of the charges Trump now faces – partly because of a minor leadership role Hostetter played among the crowd that day by shouting into a bullhorn to cheer on the crowd.
“No reasonable citizen of this country, much less one with two decades of experience in law enforcement, could have believed it was lawful to use mob violence to impede a joint session of Congress,” the judge said.
A throughline in approach that US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who will soon take over the Trump case, has had in the Capitol riot proceedings is her belief that the defendants’ punishment should serve has deterrence for any conduct aiming to undermine future elections, including in 2024.
That belief may be an impediment to any Trump efforts to delay a trial in his case until after voters go to the polls next year, as his lawyers have attempted to do in the classified documents case.
Some of the judges have sentenced misdemeanor defendants to long probation terms, at times to keep them within the justice system past the next election. But Chutkan’s sentences for January 6 rioters stand out as notably tough among the district court’s, according to data provided by the Justice Department. Every one of the three dozen Capitol rioters she has sentenced received jail time, even when prosecutors didn’t ask for it
“The country is watching to see what the consequences are for something that has not ever happened in the country before,” Chutkan said at an October 2021 sentencing.
The defendant in that case, she remarked, “did not go to the United States Capitol out of any love for our country. … He went for one man.”