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US Supreme Court to decide Trump immunity claim

The US Supreme Court has agreed to decide Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, giving him a boost as he tries to delay criminal prosecutions while running to regain the presidency.

The justices put on hold the criminal case being pursued by Special Counsel Jack Smith and will review a lower court’s rejection of Mr Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution because he was president when he took actions aimed at reversing President Joe Biden’s election victory over him.

Mr Trump’s lawyers had requested a stay of that ruling, warning of dire consequences for the presidency absent such immunity.

Mr Trump, the first former president to be criminally prosecuted, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Mr Biden, a Democrat, in the 5 November US election.

The case once again thrusts the nation’s top judicial body into the election fray.

The justices are due to issue a ruling on whether to overturn a decision by Colorado’s top court that barred Mr Trump from that state’s Republican primary ballot based on a constitutional provision regarding insurrection.

The court’s 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by Mr Trump.

The Supreme Court set the immunity case for oral argument during the week of 22 April on a single question: “Whether and if so to what extent does a former president enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.”

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on 6 February ruled 3-0 against Mr Trump’s immunity claim, rejecting his bid for “unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralise the most fundamental check on executive power – the recognition and implementation of election results”.

Mr Smith in August 2023 brought four federal criminal counts against Trump in the election subversion case.

US Special Counsel Jack Smith (file image)

A 4 March trial date was postponed as Mr Trump pressed his immunity claim, with no new date yet set.

Mr Trump has three other pending criminal cases, with a trial in New York state court concerning hush money paid to an adult film actress set to begin on 25 March.

Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty in all of them, seeking to portray them as politically motivated.

Representatives for Mr Trump and the special counsel did not immediately respond to requests for comment today.

In a filing to the Supreme Court, Mr Trump’s lawyers said a months-long criminal trial on the election charges would “radically disrupt” Mr Trump’s ability to campaign against Mr Biden.

They also warned of negative consequences for future presidents if Mr Trump’s prosecution is allowed such as partisan prosecutions, extortion, blackmail and more.

Mr Smith’s charges accused Mr Trump of conspiring to defraud the United States, obstructing the congressional certification of Mr Biden’s electoral victory and conspiring to do so, and conspiring against right of Americans to vote.

Mr Trump and his allies made false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and devised a plan to use false electors to thwart congressional certification of Mr Biden’s victory.

Mr Trump also sought to pressure his vice president Mike Pence not to allow certification to go forward. Supporters of Mr Trump attacked the US Capitol in a bid to prevent the certification.

If Mr Trump regains the presidency, he could seek to use his powers to force an end to the prosecution or potentially pardon himself for any federal crimes.

Last October, Mr Trump sought to have the charges dismissed based on his claim of immunity from criminal prosecution related to actions taken by a president while in office. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected that claim on 1 December.

‘Above the law’

During arguments in January, one of Mr Trump’s lawyers told the three DC Circuit judges that even if a president sold pardons or military secrets or ordered a Navy commando unit to assassinate a political rival, he could not be criminally charged unless he is first impeached and convicted in Congress.

In its unanimous decision rejecting Mr Trump’s immunity claim, the three-judge panel wrote: “We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”

Supreme Court justices during arguments on 8 February signaled skepticism toward a ruling by Colorado’s top court that barred Mr Trump from the state’s Republican primary ballot, based on the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, after finding he engaged in an insurrection related to the 6 January 2021, attack on the Capitol by his supporters.

The Colorado and immunity cases put the Supreme Court in the election spotlight in the most direct way since a 2000 ruling that effectively handed the White House to Republican George W Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

Mr Smith was appointed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland in 2022 to investigate Mr Trump’s actions in the aftermath of the 2020 election and his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021.

Mr Smith brought charges against Trump concerning both issues.

In a separate case, the justices also have agreed to decide whether a man involved in the Capitol attack can be charged with obstructing an official proceeding – the congressional certification of the 2020 election results.

That case, which will be argued on 16 April, has potential implications for Mr Trump because Mr Smith brought two obstruction-related charges.

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