Federal judge denies Trump immunity claim in 2020 election interference case News
"Donald Trump" - Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0
Federal judge denies Trump immunity claim in 2020 election interference case

The federal judge overseeing former US President Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case ruled Friday that Trump cannot dismiss the four criminal charges pending against him through a claim of presidential immunity. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan refuted Trump’s claim that, as US president, he enjoyed “absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions performed within the ‘outer perimeter’ of his official responsibility.” Chutkan instead found that “[f]ormer Presidents enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability.”

Trump initially filed a motion to dismiss the case based on presidential immunity on October 5. In his motion, Trump claimed that he enjoyed “absolute immunity” from criminal prosecution for any official conduct he undertook as president. Under that argument, Trump claimed that his actions on January 6, 2021 lay “at the heart of his official responsibilities as President.” Trump argued, “[T]he prosecution does not, and cannot, argue that [his] efforts to ensure election integrity, and to advocate for the same, were outside the scope of his duties.” The government responded, disputing Trump’s claims, in their motion on October 19.

In her Friday decision, Chutkan disagreed with Trump’s reading of the law and denied the motion to dismiss.

Chutkan began by addressing Trump’s argument that a reading of the US Constitution supports presidential immunity from criminal prosecution. Trump’s claims rested—in part—on an argument that, under the Impeachment Judgment Clause of the US Constitution, he could only be charged on crimes that he has also been impeached and convicted of in Congress. Chutkan disagreed with this assertion, finding that “nothing in the Constitution’s text supplies the immunity that [Trump] claims.” Chutkan explained, “There is no evidence that any of the Constitution’s drafters or ratifiers intended or understood former Presidents to be criminally immune unless they had been impeached and convicted, much less a widespread consensus that the Impeachment Judgment Clause would have that effect.”

Trump also raised concerns about the “chilling effect personal liability would have on the President’s decision-making” and the potential criminal prosecutions former presidents could face from federal, state and local officials. He argued that a president might be distracted or hesitant in carrying out his official duties if he knew of such a threat of prosecution.

But Chutkan dismissed his concerns because of the context of the case. Specifically, she said, “Those concerns do not carry the same weight in the context of a former President’s federal criminal prosecution.” In support of her finding, Chutkan referenced prior Supreme Court rulings from the Nixon era and emphasized that “a President ‘of integrity and reasonable firmness’ will not fear to carry out his lawful decision-making duties.”

Chutkan also found no merit to Trump’s claims that denying presidential immunity in this case would “open the floodgates” to further litigation. As Chutkan reasoned, her decision on the applicability of presidential immunity to this case applies to this case—and this case alone.

Chutkan ultimately concluded, “Every President will face difficult decisions; whether to intentionally commit a federal crime should not be one of them.” If she were to grant Trump’s request to dismiss, Chutkan reasoned, the public’s interest in “promoting respect for the law, deterring crime, protecting itself, and rehabilitating offenders” would be thwarted. For those reasons, Chutkan denied Trump’s motion to dismiss, resuming the push towards the March 4, 2024 trial date.

This case is one of four criminal trials—spanning 91 criminal charges—that Trump faces. He is charged with four obstruction charges for conspiring to and participating in efforts to overturn the 2020 US presidential results. He previously pleaded not guilty in August, and he continues to deny the charges.