A federal appeals court panel declared on Tuesday that there is no legal shield preventing former President Donald Trump from standing trial over allegations that he conspired to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. This ruling forcefully rebuffed Trump’s claims of immunity from prosecution and reignited a pivotal legal battle that had been stalled for weeks pending the appeal’s resolution.
The court’s decision carries significant weight not only because it dismantles Trump’s unconventional immunity argument but also because it revives a high-profile prosecution that had been effectively halted during the appeal process. However, the one-month gap between the oral arguments and the issuance of the ruling has introduced uncertainty regarding the trial’s scheduling in an already crowded election year calendar. The initial trial date set for March 4th was canceled last week by the overseeing judge due to this uncertainty.
Trump’s legal team has vowed to continue the fight, signaling their intent to appeal the ruling, a move that could potentially prolong the legal proceedings by weeks or even months, especially if the case reaches the Supreme Court. The appeals panel, comprising two judges appointed by President Joe Biden and one by a Republican president, granted Trump a week to petition the Supreme Court for intervention.
The timing of the trial holds significant political implications, with special counsel Jack Smith aiming to proceed with prosecution this year, while Trump, as a leading contender for the Republican nomination, seeks to postpone the trial until after the November elections. If Trump were to win, he might exploit his executive powers to influence the case’s outcome, either by directing a new attorney general to dismiss the charges or by seeking a self-pardon.
This unanimous ruling marks the second instance since December in which judges have affirmed Trump’s liability for actions taken during his presidency and in the lead-up to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. The court’s opinion unequivocally rejects Trump’s assertion of absolute immunity for official actions, stating, “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 judges emphasized the importance of holding individuals accountable for criminal conduct, dismissing the notion that a president possesses unchecked authority to flout election outcomes or infringe upon citizens’ voting rights. They firmly stated, “We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”
In response to the ruling, a spokesperson for Trump affirmed his intention to appeal, citing the necessity of preserving the integrity of the presidency and the Constitution. Trump himself reiterated his stance on Truth Social, asserting that presidential immunity is essential for effective governance.
The legal battle over Trump’s immunity came to the forefront in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after the Supreme Court declined to intervene in December. The absence of a definitive timeline for the Supreme Court’s action leaves the trial proceedings in limbo. If the Supreme Court rejects Trump’s appeal, the trial could resume under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan.
However, if the Supreme Court grants Trump’s appeal, the length of the trial’s delay would hinge on the court’s established timetable. Trump’s legal team has argued for extending the immunity from civil to criminal liability for official acts, maintaining that Trump’s contested actions were within the bounds of his presidential duties.
Conversely, Smith’s team contends that such immunity does not exist constitutionally and that Trump’s actions were outside the scope of his official responsibilities. Judge Chutkan had previously dismissed Trump’s claims of immunity, stating that the presidency does not grant lifelong immunity from legal accountability.
During the appellate court proceedings, the judges displayed skepticism towards Trump’s arguments, posing hypothetical scenarios to challenge the validity of his immunity claims. Trump’s lawyer asserted that a president could be prosecuted only after impeachment and conviction by Congress, aligning with their argument that impeachment acquittals shield ex-presidents from prosecution.
Beyond the Washington case, Trump faces legal challenges in Florida, Georgia, and New York, including federal charges related to classified documents and state-level accusations concerning election interference and hush money payments. Despite his denials of wrongdoing, these legal battles loom large as Trump continues his political ambitions.