Analysis | 4 takeaways from the Supreme Court’s Trump immunity decision (2024)

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that former president Donald Trump and other presidents enjoy a significant degree of immunity for actions taken as president, a decision that could reverberate not just in Trump’s criminal cases but also for future presidents.

The court split 6-3 along ideological lines in finding that a president is a) absolutely immune for actions taken while exercising his “core constitutional powers” and b) entitled to the presumption of immunity for all official acts.

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It said this was “required to safeguard the independence and effective functioning of the Executive Branch, and to enable the President to carry out his constitutional duties without undue caution.”

The court did find, though, that a president is not immune from prosecution for unofficial acts.

That last finding opens the door to the continuation of Trump’s 2020 federal election-subversion trial. But the decision takes some Trump conduct off the table and leaves plenty up in the air. That should lead to an even more protracted legal battle that appears even likelier to push the proceedings beyond the 2024 election, in which Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee.

Below are some takeaways from the ruling.

1. It’s a clear victory for Trump

While Trump didn’t get the “absolute” immunity he initially sought for all acts — oral arguments suggested that it was unlikely he would — the decision is clearly a political victory. He got more than many predicted, and it should tie up his case.

The justices didn’t delve deeply into extensive details of what is and isn’t fair game in Trump’s trials. They instead mostly set broad parameters and sent the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan to consider how those parameters affect the case.

A few key points:

  • The court ruled that Trump is absolutely immune from prosecution for any conduct “involving his discussions with Justice Department officials” — a significant segment of his federal indictment. For instance, this would seem to take off the table Trump’s interactions with Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, a key figure who has been indicted in Georgia alongside Trump, as well as other top Justice Department officials telling Trump his voter-fraud theories were wrong.
  • It ruled that he is presumed immune from prosecution for pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election on Jan. 6, 2021, because Trump’s acts “involve official conduct.” It said the burden is on the government to prove that prosecuting Trump for this wouldn’t “pose any dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.”
  • It left open the possibility that Trump can be prosecuted for other actions, particularly those with regard to people outside the executive branch and in the states. It ruled that “this alleged conduct cannot be neatly categorized as falling within a particular Presidential function.”

All of which means some of Trump’s conduct can still be prosecuted, but some cannot. And figuring out what can and cannot be is to be determined.

The other crucial point: The court ruled not only that Trump can’t be prosecuted for certain conduct, but also that conduct for which he is immune can’t even be used as evidence against him. So his interactions with Justice Department officials, for instance, can’t be used to establish a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election.

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On this point, one of the six conservative justices in the majority dissented.

“The Constitution does not require blinding juries to the circ*mstances surrounding conduct for which Presidents can be held liable,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in a concurrence.

She added: “To make sense of charges alleging a quid pro quo, the jury must be allowed to hear about both the quid and the quo, even if the quo, standing alone, could not be a basis for the President’s criminal liability.”

2. It’s likely to delay Trump’s case beyond the 2024 election

While Trump can still technically be prosecuted, the decision will lead to plenty of uncertainty and — most crucially for the 2024 election — probably delay matters even further. Trump wasn’t expected to face trial before the election; this reduces whatever chance existed.

That’s because Chutkan will have to consider which parts of the prosecution’s case are now permitted. And that could lead to lengthy arguments and consideration. Such decisions could also lead to lengthy appeals. Chutkan previously stated she would give Trump’s legal team three months to prepare for a trial should the case be sent back to her. That meant the earliest trial date was already October, irrespective of the new decisions that will have to be made.

The Supreme Court’s majority suggested that certain aspects of the indictment will have to be revisited — including comments Trump made on Jan. 6 itself.

“[The indictment] includes only select Tweets and brief snippets of the speech Trump delivered on the morning of January 6, omitting its full text or context,” the majority wrote. “Whether the Tweets, that speech, and Trump’s other communications on January 6 involve official conduct may depend on the content and context of each.”

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It added: “This necessarily factbound analysis is best performed initially by the District Court.”

3. Liberal justices warned of dire consequences, a ‘king above the law’

It’s tempting to view this decision in the context of Trump’s trials, because that’s the immediate concern. But it will also have far-reaching implications for future presidents, including for a potential second Trump term.

The court’s liberal wing raised a giant red flag on that front, casting the decision as empowering future presidents to take drastic actions.

Perhaps the most striking arguments in the case revolved around hypotheticals about just what a grant of immunity could mean in the future.

The court’s liberals say much is now on the table. Justice Sonia Sotomayor went the furthest in her dissent.

“Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune,” Sotomayor wrote. “Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune.”

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Sotomayor added: “The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was more measured, warning only that a president could now be immune from such charges.

“Thus, even a hypothetical President who admits to having ordered the assassinations of his political rivals or critics … or one who indisputably instigates an unsuccessful coup … has a fair shot at getting immunity under the majority’s new Presidential accountability model,” Jackson wrote.

The decision lands as Trump appears to be an increasing favorite to reclaim the White House in the 2024 election after President Biden’s poor debate performance Thursday, and Trump has at the very least demonstrated a tendency to push the limits of the law and presidential power.

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The decision could provide Trump a road map for exploiting those powers, and the liberal justices clearly fear what he might do with that.

“With fear for our democracy, I dissent,” Sotomayor concluded.

4. The hits keep coming for panicky Democrats

The ruling caps a remarkably bad five-day period for Democrats.

First came Biden’s awful debate performance Thursday. Then came a pair of Supreme Court rulings Friday limiting government prosecutions of Jan. 6 defendants — a significant PR victory for Trump — and giving the right a long-sought tool to challenge federal agency officials.

Now comes a ruling that significantly complicates the government’s case against Trump, at the least, and could empower Trump to wield executive power in more extreme ways in a second term.

Given that prospect, which Democrats so fear, it’s likely that Monday’s ruling will add even more urgency to internal party debates about how to proceed in the 2024 election — and whether Biden is the right candidate to carry the torch forward.

Analysis | 4 takeaways from the Supreme Court’s Trump immunity decision (2024)
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