Supreme Court Grants Trump, Future Presidents a Loaded Weapon to Break the Law

Supreme Court Grants Trump, Future Presidents a Loaded Weapon to Break the Law

The Supreme Court’s decision to grant presidents immunity from prosecution for criminal acts committed while in office not only gives Donald Trump a free pass for his past crimes, but sets a dangerous precedent for all future presidents.

Before Trump, no one had even argued that presidents are absolutely immune from criminal liability after they leave office. Indeed, every president – including Trump himself – assumed the opposite. In his impeachment trial Trump’s lawyers argued against impeachment by conceding that an acquittal would not be the end of potential accountability, because he could be criminally prosecuted after he left office. That concession was in line with all prior presidents’ acceptance that the United States is a place where all citizens, including the president, are equal under the law.

No more. In Trump v. United States, the court’s Republican-appointed justices — including the three Trump appointees — announced a brand new constitutional immunity from criminal liability for presidents’ “official acts,” or anything a president may do using the powers of the office. The court’s decision ensures that future presidents — including Trump himself should he win reelection in November — will know that they can escape criminal accountability for blatantly criminal acts, no matter how corrupt. Even acts that strike at the heart of our democracy, like resisting the peaceful transition of power, could not be prosecuted.

The court tried to cast its opinion as restrained, emphasizing that it rejected former President Trump’s most extreme claim: that presidents can only be prosecuted for crimes for which they had already been impeached. But as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in a powerful dissent, there is nothing measured about the opinion or its consequences. The court grants absolute immunity against criminal prosecution for any of a president’s “core” executive acts, which the court went on to define as including any use of the Justice Department—an ostensibly and traditionally independent agency–for criminal investigation. And it grants “presumptive” immunity for any acts within the “outer perimeter of his official responsibility.” While the latter immunity is in theory rebuttable, the court set such a high standard for rebutting it that it may be effectively absolute as well.

The court did hold that a president can be prosecuted for unofficial, purely private acts, a proposition even Trump did not dispute. But the court’s conception of official acts is strikingly broad. Worse, the court also held that official acts cannot even be used as evidence to support a crime committed in the president’s personal capacity, making it even more difficult for prosecutors to indict a president even for purely private criminal acts. The court purports to leave much of the work of hashing out the details in Trump’s case to lower courts. But the standards it announced will make holding any president criminally accountable extraordinarily difficult.

The immediate consequence of the decision is that it sends the current federal prosecution of former President Trump for interfering in the 2020 election into disarray. True, that prosecution is not yet dead. Formally, the Supreme Court only conclusively disqualified one set of allegations — those involving Trump’s communications to the Department of Justice — from the indictment. But as a practical matter, the fact-laden inquiry in which the district court must now engage, and any appeals thereto, will take many months if not years to resolve — all before any trial can commence. In addition, President Trump has already moved to wipe out his criminal conviction in New York State.

As Justice Robert Jackson warned in his dissent in the notorious Korematsu case upholding the federal government’s internment of Japanese Americans, the court’s opinion sits like a loaded weapon for future presidents, who can now avoid criminal liability for all manner of criminal ends so long as they do so through arguably “official” authorities.

As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent:

The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the country, and possibly the world. When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune.

If former President Trump manages to win November’s election, it does not take much imagination to see just what kinds of retribution, or worse, the court has now greenlighted him to pursue against his political enemies.

But it’s important to remember that while this decision removes the possibility of criminal accountability, other forms of accountability remain. As long as this misguided decision remains the law, we must fight presidential abuses of power in other ways. In particular, we must resist encroachments on our rights and liberties, criminal or otherwise, before they happen — through civil lawsuits, the ballot box, and in the halls of power across the country. During the Trump administration, we filed more than 400 legal actions to defend constitutional rights and liberties from his administration’s unprecedented assaults — and often succeeded in halting illegal acts.

If he is elected again, we will be ready to do the same. Already our teams have drafted our response to the civil liberties and civil rights abuses outlined in Trump’s transition project, and we promise to challenge any acts – official or not – that violate the Constitution.

The threat of criminal prosecution is an important incentive to keep presidents from breaking the law. It’s largely gone now thanks to the Supreme Court. But it is only one form of accountability and constraint — one that, we should remember, had never been resorted to in the past. As they always have done, the courts can still enjoin illegal presidential behavior. Congress has important powers of oversight, the purse, and lawmaking that can check even a rogue president. And perhaps most important, by voting like our rights depend on it, we can all help ensure that future presidents will leave the court’s loaded gun in its holster.

“By voting like our rights depend on it, we can all help ensure that future presidents will leave the court’s loaded gun in its holster.”

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