Former U.S. President Donald Trump is not immune from being prosecuted on charges that he illegally plotted to overturn his 2020 reelection loss to stay in power, a U.S. appellate court panel in Washington unanimously ruled Tuesday.
The 3-0 decision rejected Trump’s claim that special counsel Jack Smith cannot prosecute him for the actions Trump took in the waning days of his presidency to upend his loss to Democrat Joe Biden because they were related to his official duties as president.
“Former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant,” the court ruled. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution.”
In a four-count indictment, Smith accused Trump of using false claims of voter fraud to pressure state election officials, the Justice Department and his vice president, Mike Pence, to thwart congressional certification of the election results showing he had lost.
Trump, the first president accused in a criminal case, has denied wrongdoing in the election subversion case and three other indictments he is facing that encompass a total of 91 charges. Some of the trials in the cases could occur this year as Trump, the leading 2024 Republican presidential candidate, seeks to reclaim the White House in the November election, again facing Biden.
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said the appellate court ruling "threatens the bedrock of our Republic. Without complete immunity, a President of the United States would not be able to properly function!"
Tuesday’s ruling, which Trump said he is appealing, either to the full appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court, came nearly a month after the three appellate judges heard arguments in the case, with Trump in the courtroom.
With the length of the time for a decision on Trump’s immunity claim and other legal issues in the case yet to be decided, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan last week indefinitely postponed the scheduled March 4 trial date.
Chutkan had rejected Trump’s immunity claim, which he then appealed to the appellate court. She said the office of the president "does not confer a lifelong 'get-out-of-jail-free' pass."
The appellate court ruling was handed down by Judges Florence Pan and Michelle Childs, both Biden appointees, and Karen LeCraft Henderson, who was named to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
While awaiting the appellate court ruling, Trump has claimed numerous times at campaign rallies and on social media that all U.S. presidents need full immunity from prosecution, lest their political rivals charge them with crimes once their four-year presidential terms have ended.
Trump’s lawyers argued that former presidents were entitled to sweeping legal protections. They claimed that unless the House of Representatives had first impeached them for wrongdoing, and they then were convicted by the Senate and removed from office, they could not be criminally prosecuted for official actions.
Trump was twice impeached by the House, including for inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol two weeks before he left office by urging supporters to “fight like hell” to block congressional certification of Biden’s election victory. In both impeachment cases, enough Senate Republicans voted to acquit him to keep him from being convicted.
Even if Trump’s immunity is eventually rejected by the Supreme Court, he will have delayed his prosecution and possibly pushed any trial past the November 5 election. If he wins, he could direct the Justice Department to drop the case.
But any trial, whether the Washington election subversion case or any of other three Trump is facing, holds unprecedented implications for the U.S. presidential contest.
Rather than campaigning, Trump would be required to sit in court day after day and listen to testimony against him. News stories about the cases would fill the front pages of newspapers and dominate the airwaves and social media accounts just as the election approaches.
In addition to the Washington case, Trump faces federal charges in Florida that he illegally retained classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate after he left office in January 2021. He is also charged in the southeastern state of Georgia with scheming to subvert Biden’s 2020 victory there and in New York in connection with hush money payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels ahead of his successful 2016 election.
The New York trial is scheduled to start in late March.