Trump has no immunity from prosecution in Jan. 6 trial, appeals court rules

A federal appeals court has unanimously ruled that Donald Trump can be tried for trying to stay in power after losing the 2020 election, rejecting Trump's sweeping claim for presidential immunity. as dangerous and not supported by the U.S. Constitution.

During public arguments in January, all three justices expressed concern about the more extreme implications of Trump's view, with one suggesting it would allow a future president to order the assassination of a political rival. But in their Tuesday opinion, they say it is Trump's alleged crimes — “an unprecedented attack on the structure of our government” — that threaten democracy if left beyond the reach of criminal prosecution.

“We cannot accept former President Trump's assertion that a president has unlimited power to commit crimes that would override the most fundamental check on executive power: the recognition and implementation of the results of elections,” the judges wrote. “We also cannot agree with his apparent assertion that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of citizens to vote and have their votes count. »

The move is one of several decisions expected this spring that could determine whether Trump campaigns for president this fall from behind bars — and whether he is able to run for office. It comes days before the Supreme Court considers another untested question raised by Trump's candidacy: whether the former president is an insurrectionist who is constitutionally barred from returning to the White House because of his actions around January 6.

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Trump was appealing a decision made by Tanya S. Chutkan, the judge overseeing his trial in Washington, and made clear he planned to continue arguing his case in higher courts. The D.C. Circuit panel set a tight deadline for that review, saying it would give Trump only until Feb. 12 to ask the Supreme Court to intervene. So it would be difficult for Trump to ask the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington Circuit to review the decision first. Even if his legal arguments fail in court, even the rulings against him increase his chances of delaying any federal trial in Washington until after the presidential election, in which he is the Republican frontrunner.

Trump's trial was scheduled for March 4, one of four criminal charges Trump faces while simultaneously campaigning to win back the White House. But it was postponed indefinitely last week to allow the appeal process on the immunity issue to continue.

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The panel wrote “per curiam,” meaning they “speak with one voice,” in a 57-page opinion addressing all arguments made by Trump's lawyers during oral arguments before the appeals court in January. “This opinion is as powerful an argument as could have been against the Supreme Court’s intervention,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas Law School. “It’s up to the judges to decide if it’s strong enough.”

Five judges expected to agree to stay Trump's appeal trial. Vladeck predicted that the Court would take the case quickly and decide it before the end of the term, in late June or early July, or not consider it at all. “They don’t want to seem like they’re running out of time,” he said. “If they want to intervene, I think they will want to intervene this term.”

The Justice Department has long maintained that a current president cannot be prosecuted. But Trump advanced a new claim that former presidents can't either, at least for actions related to their official duties, unless they are first impeached and convicted by Congress. After being acquitted by the Senate of inciting the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump said trying him in federal court would be a double violation.

The only Republican named to the panel, Karen L. Henderson, has always favored broad presidential power. But during oral argument, she called it “paradoxical” that a president’s duty to faithfully execute laws allows him to violate them. This characterization is reflected in the final opinion, which calls Trump's position a “striking paradox.” It also suggests that some fear of future prosecution serves an important purpose: “to deter potential abuse of power and criminal behavior.”

For years, former President Donald Trump's lawyers have said he should only be immune from charges while in office. Now they say he should have absolute immunity. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The court cited Chutkan’s earlier ruling: “Every president will face difficult decisions; The question of whether to intentionally commit a federal crime should not be one of them.

Having already promised if re-elected to use the Justice Department to “go after” Biden, Trump said after debates in the Washington Circuit that a ruling against him would mean “chaos in the country “. In a statement published Tuesday on the conservative website Truth Social, Trump job that without “total immunity…A president will be afraid to act for fear of vicious retaliation from the opposing party after leaving office.” »

The D.C. Circuit rejected this warning as “unsupported by history” because “this is the first time since the Founding that a former president has been indicted at the federal level.” The judges also noted that other ex-presidents considered themselves vulnerable to prosecution. Richard Nixon accepted a pardon “for all offenses” he “committed or might have committed” while in office. Bill Clinton agreed to the suspension of his law license and a fine to avoid possible indictment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. the jury process would “prevent baseless indictments,” the judges said.

The decision also echoes an assessment made by Justice Florence Y. Pan during oral arguments – that Trump's assertion that he could be prosecuted as long as he was first impeached and convicted by Congress rather undermines does not strengthen his argument. He “implicitly admits that there is no absolute immunity,” the court wrote, and complains only about the process.

Trump's impeachment request relied on a single line in the Constitution saying that while Congress can only remove a person from office, “the party found guilty shall nevertheless be responsible and subject to impeachment.” . Trump, who was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate, argued that it should mean the opposite, as he said in his filings: “A president who is not condemned can not be subject to criminal prosecution. »

During closing arguments, when asked whether Trump's views would allow a president to order the assassination of a political rival, defense attorney D. John Sauer declined to comment. disagreement. He only suggested that such action would “quickly” result in impeachment.

The court called this “irrational” and “implausible.”[e].” The argument that prosecution after an acquittal for impeachment would violate the principle of double jeopardy was “not serious,” the court said – “impeachment is a political process,” and most senators who voted against Trump's impeachment said they did so for reasons “unrelated to factual innocence.” Additionally, the court said, the single charge of inciting insurrection did not completely overlap with charges against Trump in Washington for conspiring to overturn the election results.

Although presidents should be shielded from prosecution for certain acts, the court said it was “doubtful” whether Trump's efforts to stay in power were admissible: “He would have injected himself into a process in which the president n has no role. »

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that presidents could not be sued in civil court for official decisions. Another D.C. Circuit panel ruled late last year that the prosecution of Trump could proceed because campaigning for re-election is not an “official act.” Trump said he also plans to appeal the decision.

The D.C. Circuit's decision is not binding in any other jurisdiction where Trump is charged with a crime. He is making similar arguments in Georgia, where he is accused of specifically interfering in that state's 2020 election. But in this case, Trump also argues that the Constitution “supremacy clause» prohibits state prosecutors from charging a former president. The special prosecutor refused to resolve this issue, saying in court filings that “lawsuits by a state or local entity would raise distinct questions.” In New York state court and Florida federal court, Trump will be tried for actions he took before or after his presidency.

“We do not address the political considerations involved in the prosecution of a sitting president or in a state prosecution of a president, sitting or former,” the D.C. Circuit said in a footnote to her decision.

Spencer S. Hsu, Ann E. Marimow and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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