In a recent hearing at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, a debate unfolded over the legal boundaries of presidential immunity, with former President Donald Trump’s legal team asserting that a president cannot be criminally prosecuted unless impeached and removed first. This argument, however, faced skepticism from the appellate judges.
During the 90-minute session, Judge Florence Pan posed a hypothetical scenario, questioning whether a president could face criminal charges if they ordered an assassination of a political rival without being impeached. John Sauer, representing Trump, suggested that impeachment and conviction would be prerequisites for such prosecution. This response led Judge Pan to clarify that Sauer’s stance essentially implied a president could not be prosecuted under these circumstances.
Sauer emphasized that the Constitution’s framers intended presidential immunity to protect against politically driven prosecutions, arguing that impeachment and removal would be the only exceptions to this rule. Assistant Special Counsel James Pearce, representing Special Counsel Jack Smith, challenged this view, questioning the implications of a president potentially exploiting state power for personal vendettas without facing legal consequences.
The debate intensified as Sauer countered Pearce’s concerns, pointing out that the U.S. has operated under these constitutional interpretations for over two centuries, suggesting that this framework is integral to the nation’s republic structure.
Trump, who attended the hearing, has been navigating legal challenges since his arraignment in August on charges related to his actions following the 2020 election. His legal team, led by Sauer, argued that prosecuting Trump for his presidential actions could set a dangerous precedent.
The legal intricacies of this case are unprecedented, as no former U.S. president has faced indictment before. The Special Counsel’s office maintains that there is no legal barrier to prosecuting a president who has been impeached and acquitted, differentiating these charges from those related to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
The court’s decision on this matter is pending, with an expedited schedule for filing papers set by the judges. The outcome could delay Trump’s trial, currently scheduled for March 4, and potentially impact its timing relative to the 2024 election.
DC Federal Judge Tanya Chutkan, overseeing the trial, previously dismissed Trump’s claim for presidential immunity, stating that holding high office does not equate to absolute legal protection. Trump’s legal team appealed this decision, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene, aiming to maintain the current trial schedule.
The ruling on presidential immunity could significantly influence other legal battles Trump is facing, including criminal and civil cases in multiple states. Among these are charges in New York related to hush money payments, allegations of election interference in Georgia, and accusations of mishandling national security documents in Florida. Additionally, a civil fraud trial led by New York Attorney General Letitia James against Trump and his organization is pending, with substantial financial penalties at stake.