Donald Trump scowled, hunched his shoulders and barely opened his mouth in a Miami federal court on Tuesday, as he faced criminal charges in a scene that might have seemed unimaginable a few months ago.
Crossing and uncrossing his arms, and dressed in a dark suit and red tie, the former president listened in silence to the judge and prosecutor, at one point whispering into the ear of his lawyer, Todd Blanche.
A world away from his gilded golf clubs and the Oval Office he occupied for four years, Trump – through his lawyer – pleaded not guilty to 37 felony charges related to mishandling of classified documents.
In the case appearing before federal court in Miami, one of several legal challenges casting a shadow over Trump's 2024 presidential candidacy, the Republican stands accused of endangering national security by illegally keeping top secret military plans and nuclear weapons information at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Trump pleaded not guilty to dozens of criminal counts of mishandling some of the US government's most sensitive secrets and scheming to prevent their return, in a historic first court appearance as a federal defendant.
The former president gave himself up to US Marshals in Miami for a hearing that set up the unprecedented scenario of a White House race litigated from the courtroom as well as at the ballot box.
On the eve of his 77th birthday, Trump appeared before a magistrate judge to be formally presented with 37 counts under seven charges brought by a special counsel probe that opened after an FBI raid of his Florida mansion 10 months ago.
But he dismissed his prosecution as politically-motivated in a speech to supporters framing the indictment as an effort to interfere in the 2024 election.
"Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country. Very sad thing to watch," Trump said after returning to his summer residence in New Jersey.
The hearing – just weeks after Trump denied state level financial fraud charges in a separate case in Manhattan – came with the former reality TV star's mounting legal woes threatening to derail his bid to return to the Oval Office.
The US government – which has never before prosecuted a former president – accuses Trump of violating the Espionage Act and other laws when he removed classified documents upon leaving office in 2021 and failed to give them up to the National Archives.
Authorities say he conspired to thwart investigators and knowingly shared national security secrets with people who did not have the requisite clearance.
After the hearing Trump jetted from Miami back to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he blamed US President Joe Biden for his prosecution.
"A corrupt sitting president had his top political opponent arrested on fake and fabricated charges – of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty – right in the middle of a presidential election, in which he's losing very badly," said Trump, speaking from the front of the clubhouse, flanked by US flags.
He was cheered by several hundred supporters, including 100 members of a conservative organisation of Vietnamese Americans who had donned matching red dresses and chanted: "We love Trump."
Trump enjoys strong backing from Republican voters, 81 percent of whom believe the charges against him are politically-driven, according to a new Ipsos poll.
Antonio Rufa, 30, who had come to Bedminister to support the tycoon, called Trump's indictment "a travesty" while 57-year-old Vincent Larusso said the prosecution was designed to prevent Trump from running for re-election.
"This is not democracy and people can see this from a hundred miles away," said Larusso.
The government has recovered more than 300 documents with classified markings from Trump since officials discovered his correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was missing, US media reported.
The runaway frontrunner in the 2024 Republican primary – Trump leads second-placed Ron DeSantis by more than 30 points – has been impeached twice over allegations of misconduct in office and was recently found liable for sexual abuse.
He faces indictment or ongoing scrutiny in four criminal probes – in Washington, Florida, Georgia and New York – and could find himself on trial in multiple cases as he campaigns to return to the White House.
The pugnacious billionaire has repeatedly complained that the investigations against him amount to a baseless "witch hunt" – and has vowed to stay in the race regardless of the outcome of the documents case.