Former President Donald J. Trump’s claim that he was immune from being prosecuted for any crimes he committed while trying to stay in office after losing the 2020 election was always a long shot. But in an opinion on Tuesday eviscerating his assertion, three federal appeals court judges portrayed his position as not only wrong on the law but also repellent.
“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a president has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results,” they wrote, adding with an emphatic echo: “We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”
The 57-page opinion was issued on behalf of all three members of a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. They included two Democratic appointees and, significantly, Judge Karen L. Henderson, a Republican appointee who had sided with Mr. Trump in several earlier legal disputes.
The ruling systematically weighed and forcefully rejected each of Mr. Trump’s arguments for why the case against him should be dismissed on immunity grounds. The resounding skepticism raised the question of whether the Supreme Court — to which Mr. Trump is widely expected to appeal — will decide there is any need for it to take up the case.
On the one hand, the ruling unanimously answered each question put forward by Mr. Trump’s defense team, affirming a similar ruling by the trial judge overseeing the criminal case, Tanya S. Chutkan of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. It was far from clear whether a majority of Supreme Court justices would find anything to disagree with in its conclusions.
Still, Mr. Trump’s claim of total immunity introduces a momentous legal issue the Supreme Court has never considered — no former president has ever been charged with crimes before, so there is no direct precedent. Normally, the justices might see it as appropriate to weigh in, too, even if it were merely to affirm an appeals court’s handiwork.
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