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Appeals panel rules against Trump on presidential immunity

A three-judge panel upheld a lower court ruling that deemed former President Trump is not immune from criminal prosecution as a former executive, blocking his effort to toss his election interference federal case on those grounds.

“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 for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its 57-page decision.

“But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution.”

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling was issued, Trump’s team said he “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

The decision is a rejection of Trump’s argument that presidents enjoy sweeping immunity from criminal charges, even well after they’ve left office.

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results. Nor can we sanction his apparent contention that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of individual citizens to vote and to have their votes count,” the judges wrote in the decision.

“We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter. Careful evaluation of these concerns leads us to conclude that there is no functional justification for immunizing former Presidents from federal prosecution in general or for immunizing former President Trump from the specific charges in the Indictment.”

Two of the judges who wrote the ruling were nominated by President Biden while the other judge was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.

The much-awaited decision comes as legal observers became panicked over the delay of a ruling from the Jan. 9 hearing, which led U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan — who originally rejected Trump’s immunity claims — to suspend a March 4 trial date until the issue was resolved.

The decision reflects the skepticism expressed by the judges in that hearing, where they pressured Trump’s lawyers to weigh possible extremes that might be permitted under their framework, including that a former president could skirt prosecution after ordering the assassination of a political rival.

Trump’s team had argued that presidents could only be prosecuted if they were first impeached and convicted by the Senate — a reversal from what Trump’s legal team argued when he was facing his second impeachment.

The judges also rejected an argument that has been a running theme for him both in court and on the campaign trail: that he is being targeted for political purposes in a case that risks similar prosecutions of future executives.

“As former President Trump acknowledges that this is the first time since the Founding that a former President has been federally indicted,” they wrote.

“Weighing these factors, we conclude that the risk that former Presidents will be unduly harassed by meritless federal criminal prosecutions appears slight.”

Still, Trump renewed that exact argument in responding to the decision.

“If immunity is not granted to a President, every future President who leaves office will be immediately indicted by the opposing party. Without complete immunity, a President of the United States would not be able to properly function!” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.

They also rejected arguments that the threat of prosecution creates a chilling effect on presidents.

“Past Presidents have understood themselves to be subject to impeachment and criminal liability, at least under certain circumstances, so the possibility of chilling executive action is already in effect,” the court wrote.

They also note that Trump’s interpretation of immunity is out of line with those of past presidents — pointing to President Ford’s 1974 pardoning of former President Nixon to protect him from prosecution.

The battle over Trump’s immunity is as much about the merits of his arguments as it is about timing.

Trump has looked to delay his legal fights, hoping to return to the White House and end special counsel Jack Smith’s prosecutions by either pardoning himself or directing his future administration’s Justice Department to drop the cases.

And as the former president appeals his immunity claims, the district court proceedings have been on hold. The delay has already derailed the original March 4 trial date and is continuing to inch the timing closer to the 2024 election.

If Trump wants to keep his trial proceedings from moving ahead, however, Tuesday’s ruling effectively forces him to appeal to the Supreme Court by Feb. 12.

After that date, the D.C. Circuit panel said it would return the case to the trial court, unless Trump seeks emergency relief from the justices. In that scenario, the trial proceedings would remain on pause until the Supreme Court acts.

Smith had previously sought to keep the trial schedule on track by asking the Supreme Court to leapfrog the D.C. Circuit and take up the issue immediately. The justices declined to do so, but legal observers largely expect the immunity issue to be resolved by the Supreme Court eventually.

Trump, who pleaded not guilty, is charged in the case with four federal felonies that accuse him of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The case is one of four criminal indictments the former president faces as he campaigns to return to the White House; he is the front-runner in the Republican primary, consistently leading his opponents by double digits.

Updated at 11:11 a.m. ET

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