Former President Donald Trump is not immune from criminal prosecution in the special counsel Jack Smith’s election-interference case, a Washington, DC, appeals-court panel ruled Tuesday.
Trump was charged with four federal counts over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The case is one of four criminal cases the former president faces.
Smith’s office also brought charges against Trump in connection to his handling of classified information. Trump has also been indicted in Manhattan and Fulton County, Georgia.
Trump’s team is anticipated to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, denied Smith’s request to expedite Trump’s absolute immunity case, citing the need to go through the appeals process. The former president’s criminal trial in the election interference case was supposed to begin in March, but it has now been postponed.
The appeals court’s decision on Tuesday, as well as a Supreme Court hearing on the issue, could have far-reaching constitutional and political consequences.
“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defences of any other criminal defendant,” the three-judge panel stated in its 57-page judgement. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution.”
The panel said in its conclusion, “We cannot accept former President Trump’s contention that a president has unrestricted ability to conduct crimes that would neutralise the most fundamental check on executive power—the acknowledgment 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 three-judge panel stated that Trump’s position on presidential immunity “would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three branches.”
“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,” the court stated in their decision. “We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”
In a statement, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung criticised the appeals court verdict, claiming that if immunity was not extended to presidents, “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!” Cheung stated in the statement that Smith is “deranged” and that his persecution of Trump is “unconstitutional.”
Cheung added, “Prosecuting a president for official activities breaches the Constitution and jeopardises the foundation of our Republic.
“President Trump respectfully disagrees with the DC Circuit’s decision and will appeal it in order to safeguard the Presidency and the Constitution.”
Trump won the Iowa caucuses and is currently the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. That would position him for a rematch with President Joe Biden this year.
If the Supreme Court decides to hear an appeal, it will be entering unknown territory. If Trump is convicted in Smith’s case and wins a second term, it will be the first time in US history that a president-elect has been convicted of a felony.
The scenario may also test the limitations of the presidential pardon, as Trump may attempt to pardon himself.
Trump is also facing a felony trial in his Manhattan hush-money case. The state-level business-fraud charge could now be the first criminal case to go to trial. Jury selection for that case is set for March 25.
The appeals court ruled on Trump’s legal team’s argument that he could only face criminal charges if Congress impeached and found him guilty.
It resulted in Judge Florence Pan putting hypotheticals to Trump’s lawyer, D. John Sauer, who stated that a former president could not be criminally punished for selling pardons or military secrets unless he was first impeached for it.
He refused to answer if a president could be charged for directing SEAL Team Six to assassinate a rival without first being impeached.
“He would have to be, and would, speedily be impeached and convicted before the criminal prosecution.” Sauer started in January, but Pan cut him off.
“I asked you a yes-or-no question,” she explained. “Could a president who ordered SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival, who was not impeached, be subject to criminal prosecution?”
“If he were impeached and convicted first, and so on,” said Sauer.
“So your answer is no,” Pan said.
The judges noted that Trump’s legal team is now arguing the reverse of what they did when he was impeached after the Capitol riot in 2021.
His counsel argued at the time that Trump should not be impeached but rather face the courts.