Trump is not immune in 2020 election interference case, appeals court rules

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WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected Donald Trump’s broad claim that he is immune from prosecution for alleged criminal acts he committed as president in trying to overturn the 2020 election in a chain of events that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump will almost certainly immediately appeal to the Supreme Court in a bid to prevent the trial from going ahead as scheduled. The Supreme Court could make a quick decision about whether to hear the case, and it could fast-track any ruling. The court gave Trump until Monday to appeal before the lower court can act again.

In a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump called the ruling “So bad, and so dangerous,” writing, “A Nation-destroying ruling like this cannot be allowed to stand.”

His campaign spokesman, Steven Cheung, said Trump "respectfully disagrees with the DC Circuit’s decision and will appeal it in order to safeguard the Presidency and the Constitution.”

Donald Trump Washington Hotel (Susan Walsh / AP)
Donald Trump Washington Hotel (Susan Walsh / AP)

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that there was no basis for Trump to assert that former presidents have blanket immunity from prosecution for any acts committed as president.

"For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution," the 57-page ruling said.

Trump had argued in part that "criminal liability for former Presidents risks chilling Presidential action while in office and opening the floodgates to meritless and harassing prosecution," but the appeals court found that risk "appears to be low."

"Instead of inhibiting the President’s lawful discretionary action, the prospect of federal criminal liability might serve as a structural benefit to deter possible abuses of power and criminal behavior," the judges wrote.

"It would be a striking paradox if the President, who alone is vested with the constitutional duty to 'take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,' were the sole officer capable of defying those laws with impunity," their decision said.

The case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces even as he remains the presumptive front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

A key issue is whether the trial can take place ahead of the election. Special counsel Jack Smith had asked the court to move quickly to keep the trial on schedule. The March trial date had already been delayed indefinitely pending the resolution of the appeal.

If Trump were to win the election, he would be in a position to either have the charges dismissed or potentially pardon himself.

Trump’s appeal arose from the four-count indictment in Washington, including charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. He has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in December rejected Trump’s plea to dismiss the indictment on presidential immunity and other constitutional grounds. The case is on hold while the appeals process plays out.

Trump’s lawyers had pointed to a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that endorsed presidential immunity from civil lawsuits when the underlying conduct concerns actions within the “outer perimeter” of the president’s official responsibilities. They have conceded that a former president can be prosecuted for conduct unrelated to official acts.

Trump had also argued that any prosecution is prohibited because he had not first been convicted in impeachment proceedings over the same underlying conduct.

Smith’s team argued that there is no broad immunity that prevents former presidents from being prosecuted for criminal acts committed in office. An attempt to “use fraudulent means to thwart the transfer of power” should not be considered an official act, Smith said in court papers. There is nothing in the Constitution to suggest that an unsuccessfully impeached president cannot be charged, he added.

The appeals court sided with Smith on those issues and said Trump's stance "would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches."

"We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter," the ruling said.

Ty Cobb, a former attorney for Trump who dealt with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, who has been a critic of Trump’s false stolen election claims, called the ruling “one of the most profound constitutional opinions in our history.”

“It will dominate, along with a half-dozen other core constitutional cases, in law schools for the next 100 years. It’s that significant, and it’s that well done,” he said.

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