Donald Trump’s claim of absolute immunity rejected: What next?

A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Trump enjoyed no immunity against charges he plotted to derail 2020 elections.

Former US President Donald Trump, with his lawyers, attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court
Former US President Donald Trump, with his lawyers, attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court, January 11, 2024 [Shannon Stapleton/Pool via AP]

A United States federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Donald Trump has no immunity from charges of election manipulation when he was president, further opening up chances that the former president could stand in an unprecedented criminal trial.

In a written decision, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit opined that Trump does not have the authority to break federal laws and not be tried because he was once president. The judges added that his role in disrupting the 2020 elections had potentially violated “applicable criminal laws”.

“We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter,” the judges wrote in their decision.

It would be historic for a presidential frontrunner to stand a criminal trial or be a convicted felon. Tuesday’s ruling could also open up challenges to Trump’s so-far successful bid as the Republican Party presidential candidate in elections due in November.

Here’s a breakdown of the case and how it could affect Trump’s presidential run:

What is the case about?

Last year, Trump filed a motion at a DC trial court to dismiss a federal elections interference case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith in the same court. In that case, the former president was accused of trying to overturn the 2020 elections and obstruct Congress on January 6, 2021.

The trial court rejected Trump’s motion in December, after which he appealed to the DC Circuit Court, the same court which released a ruling on February 6.

Trump’s counsel had argued throughout the trials that he should not be made to answer in court because of the presidential immunity he enjoyed while in office.

A criminal indictment, Trump’s lawyers claimed, would have a “chilling effect” on future presidents, adding that executive leaders would be unwilling to act if there was concern about possible criminal charges.

The fact that lawmakers did not impeach Trump on charges of insurrection following the January 2021 attacks on Congress also meant that he should not be criminally tried for the same case, Trump’s lawyers further argued.

Trump was in fact impeached twice by the House of Representatives, but was acquitted by Republican senators in another vote that tallied in his favour. An impeachment motion started by the House can only go through if two-thirds of the Senate approve it.

What did the judges say?

But in the 57-page unanimous ruling, Judges Michelle Childs, Karen Henderson and Florence Pan rejected all of Trump’s arguments for sweeping presidential immunity, saying such an allowance would not be in the public interest.

Any executive immunity that might have protected Trump while he served as president would no longer protect him now, the judges ruled.

“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 ruling read. “We cannot accept [his] 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.”

The judges also said Trump had potentially violated criminal laws by seeking to overturn the presidency, and that his actions constituted “an unprecedented assault on the structure of our government”.

What does this mean for Trump’s campaign?

Trump can challenge the appeals court decision at the Supreme Court and experts say that is the most likely scenario. His lawyers have already decided to appeal.

The appeals court set a February 12 deadline for Trump to file an emergency request at the Supreme Court to ask for his motion to be heard and for the original trial case (brought by Special Counsel Smith) to be paused further.

A Supreme Court decision reinforcing that of the appeals court could mean that Trump will be forced to stand a criminal trial as the primaries continue. The criminal trial of a leading presidential candidate like Trump is unheard of in US history.

Standing trial, or even being convicted, does not automatically disqualify Trump from seeking the presidency according to the US Constitution. In the past, two presidential candidates, Eugene V Debs (1920) and Lyndon LaRouche Jr (1992), campaigned from federal prisons.

But a conviction could mar Trump’s campaign. While some polls show that high numbers of Republican voters in some states would still vote for Trump despite a criminal conviction, experts say the reality of voting for a felon might force them to reconsider.

So far, Trump has enjoyed a winning campaign streak, nearly cementing his hold as the Republican candidate. After sweeping victories at early primary and caucus polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, his Republican rivals have dropped off, leaving Trump as the most likely to secure the nomination.

A Trump campaign upset could see Nikki Haley, the last main Republican challenger, snatch the party nomination last minute. The party will officially announce a candidate at a convention in mid-July.

Does the court ruling play into Trump’s plans?

Analysts point out that Trump’s “presidential immunity” arguments in the appeals court were never going to make a dent, but that they are part of a larger legal strategy for the president to delay a slew of criminal indictments against him until the elections.

Trump currently faces four criminal indictments across the US.

In addition to charges of election interference in DC, Trump also faces charges of interference in Georgia state. In two other indictments, Trump is accused of mishandling classified government files in Florida and falsifying business documents to conceal a hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels in New York.

The cases amount to 91 felony charges in total. Trial dates for at least two of them are set in the next two months, although appeal motions from Trump’s team could see them delayed.

If the trials remain unfinished after a potential Trump win at the polls, Trump could appoint an attorney general that would drop all the charges against him, experts point out.

The original trial date for the DC election interference case was already set for March 4, but that has now been affected by Trump’s appeals motion and the four weeks of oral arguments that would have followed.

There are likely to be lengthy delays as the legal teams wait for the Supreme Court decision once Trump files an appeal. The court has no set deadlines on when it might announce a decision to pause the original trial and hear a second appeal in the elections interference case.

Aside from the criminal trials, Trump faces other legal challenges to his bid for a second presidency.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear a case by civil rights groups who argue that Trump should be disqualified from the race based on his violation of the 14th Amendment. A clause in the law bars people from holding office if they’ve engaged in “insurrection” or “rebellion” against the government.

The provision has rarely been invoked in 150 years, and it has never applied to a presidential candidate.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies