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Federal appeals court rules Trump doesn't have broad immunity from prosecution

The ruling by the federal appeals court is a major setback<strong> </strong>for former President Trump.
Chet Strange
Getty Images
The ruling by the federal appeals court is a major setback for former President Trump.

Updated February 6, 2024 at 11:02 AM ET

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled that Donald Trump does not enjoy broad immunity from federal prosecution, a major legal setback for the former president, who said he will appeal.

They wrote that for the purposes of this criminal case, "former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant."

The ruling comes a month after lawyers for Trump made sweeping claims that he enjoyed immunity from federal prosecution, claims that lawyers for the special counsel said would "undermine democracy" and give presidents license to commit crimes while in the White House, such as accepting bribes for directing government contracts or selling nuclear secrets to a foreign adversary.

It would be "a striking paradox," the judges wrote, if the president, who alone has the constitutional duty to ensure that laws be faithfully executed, "were the sole officer capable of defying those laws with impunity."

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, said the former president "respectfully disagrees with the DC Circuit's decision and will appeal it in order to safeguard the Presidency and the Constitution."

"If immunity is not granted to a President, every future President who leaves office will be immediately indicted by the opposing party," he said in a statement. "Without complete immunity, a President of the United States would not be able to properly function!"

The special counsel's team declined to comment.

The court said Tuesday that its analysis was specific to the case in front of them.

One of the D.C. Circuit judges, Florence Pan, pressed Trump attorney D. John Sauer at the oral argument about whether a president might sell pardons or nuclear secrets, or even order a Navy SEAL team to kill a political opponent, and still evade criminal prosecution under his theory of the case.

Another, Judge Karen L. Henderson, noted that it seemed "paradoxical" that presidents would pledge to faithfully execute the laws, only to violate those same laws and receive legal protection.

"We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter," the judges wrote. Doing so, they said, "would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three branches."

Trump has pleaded not guiltyto four felony counts that accuse him of leading a conspiracy to cling to power and disenfranchise millions of voters in 2020. Prosecutors say that this culminated in violence at the U.S. Capitol three years ago that injured 140 law enforcement officers and shook the foundations of American democracy.

Tuesday's decision comes at a crucial time for both Trump and the federal case against him. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and continues to insist — without basis in fact — that he won the 2020 presidential election.

Already, Trump's serious legal troubles — he is fighting 91 criminal charges in four separate U.S. jurisdictions — are clashing with the political calendar.

The former president has signaled that he could seek to dismiss the federal cases against him in the District of Columbia and Florida if he regains the White House. His lawyer in Georgia recently suggested Trump may try to delay the election interference case against him in Fulton County, Ga., until 2029.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.