A three-judge appeals panel flatly rejected Trump’s argument that he could not be prosecuted because he was president at the time of the alleged crimes.
“We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter,” wrote the panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The ruling is the latest major legal loss for Trump, who is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. He is expected to quickly ask the Supreme Court to overturn the decision, or ask the entire judicial lineup of the appeals court to re-hear the case.
The legal battle over Trump’s immunity claim stems from the criminal election interference case being prosecuted by special counsel Jack Smith in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Trump is charged in the case with four counts of crimes including conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. He has pleaded not guilty.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the appeals panel rejected three separate immunity arguments Trump’s lawyers made “both as a categorical defense to federal criminal prosecutions of former Presidents and as applied to this case in particular.”
“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant,” the panel wrote in the 57-page opinion.
“But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution,” they wrote.
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung decried the ruling, claiming in a statement that without “complete” presidential immunity, “every future President who leaves office will be immediately indicted by the opposing party.”
Smith’s prosecution “violates the Constitution and threatens the bedrock of our Republic,” Cheung said. He added, “President Trump respectfully disagrees with the DC Circuit’s decision and will appeal it in order to safeguard the Presidency and the Constitution.”
Former President Donald Trump prepares to testify during his trial in New York State Supreme Court on November 06, 2023 in New York City.
David Dee Delgado | Getty Images
The ruling by Judges Florence Pan, Michelle Childs and Karen LeCraft Henderson noted, “We have balanced former President Trump’s asserted interests in executive immunity against the vital public interests that favor allowing this prosecution to proceed.”
“We conclude that ‘[concerns] of public policy, especially as illuminated by our history and the structure of our government’ compel the rejection of his claim of immunity in this case.”
While the ruling mostly struck a measured, dispassionate tone, the judges at times sounded alarmed as they warned that Trump’s view of presidential powers would have dire consequences.
“At bottom, former President Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches,” they wrote.
“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.”
Pan and Childs were nominated to the appeals court by Democratic President Joe Biden. Henderson was nominated by Republican former President George H.W. Bush.
Trump’s lawyers, seeking to dismiss the election interference case, had argued to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan that Trump has “absolute immunity” from prosecution because the charges relate to official acts performed while he was president.
After Chutkan declined to dismiss the charges, Trump’s attorneys brought the immunity argument to the appeals court. That move put the case on hold in Chutkan’s court, and led the judge last week to indefinitely postpone the previously scheduled March 4 trial.
Smith, seeking to avoid a drawn-out legal dispute that could delay Trump’s trial, beseeched the Supreme Court to quickly take up the dispute. The high court declined to do so, putting the matter back into the appeals court’s hands.
Smith alleges Trump, using false election fraud claims as a pretext, tried to reverse President Joe Biden‘s victory through multiple criminal conspiracies. Those allegedly include organizing slates of illegitimate pro-Trump electors in states Biden won, trying to use the Justice Department to conduct “sham” election crime investigations, and challenging the count of legitimate electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump has called the case a “witch hunt” and claimed that it is intended to harm his 2024 presidential campaign. He has stoked fears that denying him immunity would open the floodgates to prosecution of former presidents.
Trump is separately charged in three other criminal cases. One of them, in Georgia state court, relates to his attempt to reverse his 2020 loss to Biden in that state.
In Florida federal court, Trump is charged by Smith with retaining classified government documents after leaving the White House, and obstructing efforts by government officials to retrieve them.
And in March, Trump is scheduled to go on trial in New York state court in Manhattan, where he is charged with falsifying business records related to a 2016 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Last month, a federal civil jury in Manhattan ordered Trump to pay writer E. Jean Carroll more than $83 million for defaming her when he denied her claim that he raped her in the mid-1990s.
Trump also faces a potential civil judgement of hundreds of millions of dollars in a business fraud case in Manhattan Supreme Court by the New York Attorney General. The verdict in that case is expected by the end of February.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is set to hear oral arguments Thursday in Trump’s appeal of a Colorado Supreme Court ruling barring him from being on the presidential ballot in that state this year because of his role in trying top undo his loss in 2020.
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