US appeals court judges appear sceptical of Trump immunity claim

Trump was in court as his legal team sought to convince judges that former presidents should not be prosecuted for actions taken in office.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at a Washington hotel
No former US leader before ex-President Donald Trump has ever been indicted [Susan Walsh/AP Photo]

A panel of US appeals court judges appeared deeply sceptical of Donald Trump’s claim that as a former president he should be immune from prosecution on charges that he conspired to overturn the 2020 United States election.

The 77-year-old Trump attended the appeals court hearing held under tight security in a federal courthouse on Tuesday just blocks away from the US Capitol stormed by his supporters on January 6, 2021.

Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, listened quietly to the slightly more than hour-long arguments before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals. He later addressed reporters, warning of “bedlam” in the US if his prosecution goes ahead.

Trump, who was impeached twice by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives while in office but acquitted both times by Republicans in the Senate, is scheduled to go on trial in Washington on March 4 on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election won by Democrat and current US President Joe Biden.

Trump’s attorney John Sauer told the judges that a president can only be prosecuted for actions taken while in the White House if they have first been impeached and convicted by Congress.

“To authorise the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora’s box from which this nation may never recover,” Sauer said.

US prosecutors argue that Trump was acting as a candidate, not a president, when he pressured officials to overturn the election results and encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol.

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is to preside over Trump’s trial, rejected his immunity claim last month and the judges who heard the former president’s appeal on Tuesday also appeared to be unconvinced by the argument.

“I think it’s paradoxical to say that his constitutional duty ‘to take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ allows him to violate criminal laws,” said Judge Karen Henderson, an appointee of former Republican president George HW Bush.

“You’re saying a president could sell pardons, could sell military secrets, could tell SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival?” Judge Florence Pan asked Sauer.

Sauer insisted that even in this case, the president could only be prosecuted if first impeached and convicted by Congress.

James Pearce, an attorney for the US Department of Justice, called that an “extraordinarily frightening” prospect and said it would allow a president to resign before being impeached and escape punishment.

Pushing back against the immunity claim, Pearce said Trump’s conduct was unprecedented.

“Never before has there been allegations that a sitting president has with private individuals and using the levers of power sought to fundamentally subvert the democratic republic and the electoral system,” Pearce said.

“The president has a unique constitutional role, but he is not above the law.”

Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the case against Trump, is eager to get the case to trial before November’s election. The case has been put on hold for the appeal.

Trump’s lawyers are not only seeking to dismiss the case but are also hoping to benefit from a protracted appeals process that could delay the trial past its scheduled March start date, even potentially after the election.

It’s not clear how quickly the court will rule on the appeal, but court representatives have signalled that they intend to work quickly.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies