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Trump says Supreme Court ruling on immunity case is a ‘win for democracy’

Former US president Donald Trump (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Former US president Donald Trump (Gerald Herbert/AP)

The US Supreme Court on Monday extended the delay in the Washington criminal case against Donald Trump on charges he plotted to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss, all but ending prospects the former president could be tried before the November election.

Mr Trump hailed the ruling as a “big win for democracy”.

In a historic 6-3 ruling, the justices said for the first time that former presidents have absolute immunity from prosecution for their official acts and no immunity for unofficial acts.

But rather than do it themselves, the justices ordered lower courts to work out precisely how to apply the decision to Mr Trump’s case.

The outcome means additional delay before Mr Trump could face trial in the case brought by special counsel Jack Smith.

The US Supreme Court building with American flag flying
The Supreme Court in Washington, DC (Susan Walsh/AP)

The court’s decision in a second major Trump case this term, along with its ruling rejecting efforts to bar him from the ballot because of his actions following the 2020 election, underscores the direct and possibly uncomfortable role the justices are playing in the November election.

The ruling was the last of the term and it came more than two months after the court heard arguments, far slower than in other epic high court cases involving the presidency, including the Watergate tapes case.

The Supreme Court directed US district judge Tanya Chutkan to assess whether core aspects of the indictment are official acts and therefore shielded from immunity or are not official acts and therefore potentially subject to prosecution.

Those include, among other things, Mr Trump’s hectoring of then-vice president Mike Pence not to certify the electoral votes — a core feature of the four-count indictment.

Mr Trump posted in all capital letters on his social media network shortly after the decision was released: “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”

The three liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — all dissented from the majority opinion.

In her dissent, Ms Sotomayor wrote: “Today’s decision to grant former presidents criminal immunity reshapes the institution of the presidency. It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our constitution and system of government, that no man is above the law.”

Two protesters outside the US Supreme Court with placards
Protesters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Monday (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Republican former president has denied doing anything wrong and has said this prosecution and three others are politically motivated to try to keep him from returning to the White House.

In May, Mr Trump became the first former president to be convicted of a felony, in a New York court. He was found guilty of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment made during the 2016 presidential election to an adult film actress who says she had sex with him, which he denies. He still faces three other indictments.

Smith is leading the two federal probes of the former president, both of which have led to criminal charges. The Washington case focuses on Mr Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

The case in Florida revolves around the mishandling of classified documents. The other case, in Georgia, also turns on Mr Trump’s actions after his defeat in 2020.

If Mr Trump’s Washington trial does not take place before the 2024 election and he is not given another four years in the White House, he presumably would stand trial soon thereafter.

But if he wins, he could appoint an attorney general who would seek the dismissal of this case and the other federal prosecution he faces. He could also attempt to pardon himself if he reclaims the White House. He could not pardon himself for the conviction in state court in New York.

The Supreme Court that heard the case included three justices appointed by Mr Trump — Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — and two justices who opted not to step aside after questions were raised about their impartiality.

Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni, attended the rally near the White House where Mr Trump spoke on January 6, 2021, though she did not go the Capitol when a mob of Trump supporters attacked it soon after.

Following the 2020 election, she called it a “heist” and exchanged messages with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging him to stand firm with Mr Trump as he falsely claimed that there was widespread election fraud.

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally
Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Chesapeake, Virginia (Steve Helber/AP)

Justice Samuel Alito said there was no reason for him to step aside from the cases following reports by The New York Times that flags similar to those carried by the January 6 rioters flew above his homes in Virginia and on the New Jersey shore.

His wife, Martha-Ann Alito, was responsible for flying both the inverted American flag in January 2021 and the “Appeal to Heaven” banner in the summer of 2023, he said in letters to Democratic politicians responding to their recusal demands.

Mr Trump’s trial had been scheduled to begin March 4, but that was before he sought court-sanctioned delays and a full review of the issue by the nation’s highest court.

Before the Supreme Court got involved, a trial judge and a three-judge appellate panel had ruled unanimously that Mr Trump can be prosecuted for actions undertaken while in the White House and in the run-up to January 6.

“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 appeals court wrote in February. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution.”

Judge Chutkan, who would preside over the trial in Washington, DC, ruled against Mr Trump’s immunity claim in December. In her ruling, Judge Chutkan said the office of the president “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass”.

“Former presidents enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability,” she wrote. “Defendants may be subject to federal investigation, indictment, prosecution, conviction and punishment for any criminal acts undertaken while in office.”

At the Supreme Court, the majority found that the immunity they recognised extends to the “outer perimeter” of the president’s official responsibilities, setting what appears to be a high bar for determining what conduct could potentially be prosecuted.

“In dividing official from unofficial conduct, courts may not inquire into the president’s motives,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “Nor may courts deem an action unofficial merely because it allegedly violates a generally applicable law.”

The opinion found Mr Trump is “absolutely immune” from prosecution for alleged conduct involving discussions with the Justice Department.

Mr Trump is also “at least presumptively immune” from allegations that he tried to pressure Mr Pence to reject certification of the vote, Mr Roberts wrote.

The majority did reject Mr Trump’s arguments that the indictment should be dismissed, and that impeachment is a necessary step in the enforcement of the law.

Justice Clarence Thomas issued a separate concurrence saying that he believed Jack Smith’s appointment as special counsel was illegitimate and that the case therefore violates “our constitutional structure”.

No other justice signed on to that opinion, but the question took centre stage in recent arguments in a separate case against Mr Trump charging him in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents.

Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal called the Supreme Court’s ruling a “cravenly political decision” meant to shield Mr Trump with a “legal armour that no other citizen enjoys”.

“This is a licence for authoritarianism,” the Connecticut politician said in a statement on Monday.

And David Becker, an election law expert and the executive director of the nonprofit Centre for Election Innovation and Research, called the breadth of immunity granted to Mr Trump “incredibly broad” and “deeply disturbing”.

“Almost anything that a president does with the executive branch is characterised as an official act,” he said on a call with reporters following the ruling.

“I think putting aside this particular prosecution, for any unscrupulous individual holding the seat of the Oval Office who might lose an election, the way I read this opinion is it could be a road map for them seeking to stay in power.”

Mr Becker said even historic scandals such as Watergate could be seen differently given the ruling.

“It’s likely that Gerald Ford did not need to pardon Richard Nixon under the interpretation of presidential immunity that this court enunciates today,” he said.

Mr Becker lamented the time the Supreme Court took with the ruling, saying Americans had an interest in knowing the result sooner given Mr Trump’s candidacy in the upcoming presidential election.

President Joe Biden’s campaign said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s immunity ruling “doesn’t change the facts” about the events of January 6.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer denounced Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court as “a disgraceful decision” made with the help of the three justices that Mr Trump appointed himself.

“It undermines Scotus’s (Supreme Court of the United States) credibility and suggests political influence trumps all in our courts today,” the New York Democrat said on X, formerly Twitter.

Former Capitol Police sergeant Aquilino Gonell, who was injured by Mr Trump’s supporters during the January 6 attack on the Capitol, said the Supreme Court’s decision that former presidents have some immunity from prosecution is “very disappointing”.

Mr Gonell was in front of the Supreme Court as the ruling was handed down. He criticised the decision to return the case to a lower court, delaying the criminal case against Mr Trump on charges he plotted to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss.

“What is it that we are playing other than delaying the inevitable, which is that Donald Trump needs to face the consequences?” Mr Gonell asked.

Mr Gonell, who has been campaigning for Joe Biden, was severely beaten in the Capitol attack. He retired from the force in 2022 because of his injuries.

Following its rulings in three cases on Monday, the Supreme Court adjourned until the first Monday in October.