Donald Trump does not have presidential immunity, US court rules

Donald Trump does not have presidential immunity, US court rules
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference after attending the E. Jean Carroll second civil trial, who accused him of raping her decades ago, New York City, U.S., January 17, 2024.Reuters

Donald Trump does not have presidential immunity and can be prosecuted on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election, a US court has ruled.

Mr Trump had claimed in the landmark legal case that he was immune from criminal charges for acts he said fell within his duties as president.

But Tuesday’s unanimous ruling in Washington DC struck down that claim.

It is a setback for Mr Trump who has for years cited presidential immunity while battling multiple cases.

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a president has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralise the most fundamental check on executive power – the recognition and implementation of election results,” the three-judge appeals court panel wrote in its opinion.

It added: “For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defences of any other criminal defendant.”

Mr Trump is expected to appeal against the ruling, meaning the case could ultimately go to the Supreme Court where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority.

US Special Counsel Jack Smith has charged Mr Trump, 77, with conspiring to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election and committing fraud to stay in office.

The trial in that case was initially scheduled for 4 March, but was postponed pending a ruling on the immunity claim. It could be delayed for weeks, if not months, if the case ends up before the Supreme Court.

Last month, a panel of three judges heard the case at the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

The argument from Mr Trump’s lawyer hinged on the idea that a president who is not convicted for impeachment by Congress cannot be subject to criminal proceedings. Mr Trump, they noted, was impeached by the House of Representatives but never convicted by the Senate.

The judge presiding over the trial had already rejected this argument in December. Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote at the time that the presidency “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass”.

At the hearing, the judges – two Democratic appointees and one Republican appointee – were sceptical of the former president’s argument.

One, Judge Florence Pan, suggested that immunity would allow a president to sell state secrets or order the assassination of a political rival without being concerned about criminal prosecution.

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By David Ryckman