Trump has no immunity from prosecution, US appeals court rules

Slamming decision, presidential hopeful says it will hamper his ability to act should he be reelected, for fear of facing charges in court

Former US president Donald Trump prepares to testify during his trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York, on November 6, 2023. (Jabin Botsford/Pool/AFP)
Former US president Donald Trump prepares to testify during his trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York, on November 6, 2023. (Jabin Botsford/Pool/AFP)

Donald Trump has no immunity from prosecution as a former president and can be tried on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, a federal appeals court said Tuesday in a landmark ruling.

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal liability for actions he took while in the White House is “unsupported by precedent, history or the text and structure of the Constitution.”

“Former president Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the president beyond the reach of all three branches,” they said. “We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”

Judges homed in on the broad nature of Trump’s claim at a January 9 hearing, questioning one of the former president’s lawyers over whether even a president who ordered military commandos to assassinate a political rival could escape criminal prosecution without initial action by Congress.

The ruling is a major legal setback for Trump, 77, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and a spokesman for the former president said he would appeal.

Trump, in a post on his Truth Social platform, slammed the ruling and said it means “a president will be afraid to act for fear of the opposite party’s vicious retribution after leaving office.”

Supporters of then-US president Donald Trump hold signs as they stand outside of the Clark County Elections Department in North Las Vegas, November 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

“A President of the United States must have full immunity in order to properly function and do what has to be done for the good of our country,” he said. “A nation-destroying ruling like this cannot be allowed to stand.”

The appeals court put the immunity ruling on hold until Monday to give Trump the opportunity to appeal to the US Supreme Court, which can decide whether to take the case or allow the lower court’s ruling to stand.

Trump had been set to go on trial in Washington on March 4 on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election won by Democrat President Joe Biden.

But District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the case, was forced to postpone it pending a ruling on the immunity issue, which she had rejected in December.

The three appellate court judges who heard Trump’s appeal last month were also unconvinced by his arguments.

“For the purpose of this criminal case, former president Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant,” they said in their unanimous ruling. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution.”

A supporter of former US president and presidential hopeful Donald Trump carries a placard after a press conference at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 1, 2024. (Jim Watson/AFP)

Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the election conspiracy case against Trump, the first former president to face criminal indictment, had been trying to keep the March start date for the trial on track.

Lawyers for the former president have sought repeatedly to delay it until after the November presidential election when Trump could potentially have all of the federal cases against him dropped if he wins the White House again.

‘Pandora’s Box’

Trump also faces 2020 election interference charges in the state of Georgia and has been indicted in Florida for taking large numbers of top secret documents with him on leaving the White House.

He was impeached twice by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives while in office but acquitted both times by the Senate.

During arguments last month before the appeals court, Trump’s attorney John Sauer argued that a president can only be prosecuted for actions taken while in the White House if first impeached and convicted by Congress.

Former US president Donald Trump raises his fist as he leaves his apartment building, Thursday, Jan 25, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

“To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora’s Box from which this nation may never recover,” Sauer said.

The appeals court judges disagreed.

“Presidential immunity against federal indictment would mean that, as to the president, the Congress could not legislate, the Executive could not prosecute and the Judiciary could not review,” they wrote.

The Supreme Court is already scheduled to hear another important election-related case this week.

The Colorado Supreme Court barred Trump in December from appearing on the Republican presidential primary ballot in the state because of his role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.

Trump appealed the Colorado ruling and the conservative-majority Supreme Court, which includes three justices appointed by the former president, is to hear oral arguments in the case on Thursday.

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