In a groundbreaking ruling, a federal appeals court panel declared that former President Donald Trump, along with any other former president, could potentially face prosecution for alleged crimes committed while in office. The unanimous decision, encompassing 57 pages, was handed down by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This ruling stands as a significant victory for special counsel Jack Smith, who aims to bring Trump to trial this year on federal felony charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
The court’s ruling emphasizes the transition of former President Trump into “citizen Trump,” stripping away any executive immunity he may have enjoyed while in office. The judges underscored that for the purposes of this criminal case, Trump is on equal footing with any other criminal defendant. They explicitly stated, “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution.”
The decision affirms the groundbreaking conclusion reached by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, asserting that former presidents can indeed be prosecuted for crimes committed during their time in office, even if those alleged crimes are related to their official duties. Trump had argued against this, contending that former presidents should not be subject to prosecution without first undergoing impeachment and conviction by Congress.
The speed of the appeals court’s action, taking only 28 days after oral arguments, is notable. While this slowed Smith’s case and necessitated a delay in Trump’s scheduled trial, it also keeps the possibility open for a trial to proceed in Washington sometime in the spring.
Despite Trump’s intention to appeal, possibly reaching the Supreme Court as early as Monday, the appellate judges have put their decision on hold until then. If Trump pursues this route, the decision won’t come into effect until the Supreme Court acts on his request. Alternatively, Trump could request a rehearing from the D.C. Circuit, although this would not necessarily delay the case’s return to Judge Chutkan unless the full bench of the D.C. Circuit agrees to a rehearing.
The unanimous nature of Tuesday’s ruling, supported by both liberal and conservative judges, carries significant weight. Rather than a divided decision, the ruling lays down a comprehensive legal and political framework for prosecuting a former president.
The panel, comprising judges appointed by Presidents Joe Biden and George H.W. Bush, concluded that the traditional doctrines of presidential immunity from civil lawsuits related to official duties do not extend to alleged criminal acts, particularly for a former president. They argued that the gravity of the charges against Trump outweighed concerns about potential chilling effects on future presidents.
The judges emphasized that their decision did not factor in policy considerations related to prosecuting a sitting president or a state prosecution of a president, either current or former. They firmly rejected Trump’s claim of “categorical” immunity from prosecution, citing the precedent set by President Richard Nixon’s acceptance of a presidential pardon to forestall potential criminal charges stemming from the Watergate scandal.
Additionally, the panel dismissed Trump’s assertion that former presidents can only be prosecuted after impeachment and conviction by Congress. They pointed out that 30 Republican senators’ refusal to convict Trump during his impeachment trial regarding the Capitol attack signaled a lack of consensus on Congress’s authority to try former presidents.
In response to the court’s ruling, Trump’s spokesperson reiterated Trump’s argument that his indictment would set a dangerous precedent, suggesting that future presidents could face vindictive prosecutions from political adversaries after leaving office.
The federal appeals court’s decision represents a significant development in legal and political discourse surrounding the accountability of former presidents for their actions while in office. It establishes a precedent that former presidents, including Trump, are not immune to prosecution for alleged criminal acts committed during their tenure.