What does the Supreme Court immunity ruling mean for Trump? 6 questions answered – PBS NewsHour

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

What does the Supreme Court immunity ruling mean for Trump? 6 questions answered – PBS NewsHour

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In a historic decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that former presidents have at least some immunity from criminal prosecution for “official acts” in office, no matter their “politics, policy, or party,” but stipulated that that protection doesn’t cover everything.
Read the full Supreme Court decision on Trump and presidential immunity
The court’s three liberal justices dissented. Monday’s decision “reshapes the institution of the Presidency” and could lead to stark, long-term consequences for American democracy, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
While the lower court has the job of working out the specific parameters of the high court’s decision, one thing is clear: For Trump, the ruling is a victory. He and his legal team have sought to dismiss or delay the four ongoing criminal cases against him. And this latest Supreme Court ruling makes it hard to see how the federal 2020 election case could go to trial before the next Election Day.
Soon after the court’s decision was released, the former president declared in all caps on his social media network, “Big win for our Constitution and democracy. Proud to be an American.”
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What happens to Trump’s federal criminal charges, especially if he is reelected? Here are five quick questions about the court’s ruling.
The heart of Trump v. United States was a legally untested question that has not come before the high court until now: whether a president could be immune from criminal prosecution for official acts while in office.
“The president enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
But, Roberts added, “the system of separated powers designed by the Framers has always demanded an energetic, independent Executive. The President therefore may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled, at a minimum, to a presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts.”
The court’s three liberal justices argued that making a president immune from prosecution makes him “a king above the law.”
“Let the President violate the law, let him exploit the trappings of his office for personal gain, let him use his official power for evil ends,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “Because if he knew that he may one day face liability for breaking the law, he might not be as bold and fearless as we would like him to be. That is the majority’s message today.”
Chief Justice Roberts laid out three different categories of presidential acts:
Roberts said some actions, such as those involving the attorney general or Department of Justice, fall into the first category. They “are readily categorized in light of the nature of the President’s official relationship to the office held by that individual,” and therefore fall under absolute immunity.
Other interactions, Roberts wrote, get more complicated.
These include Trump’s conversations with then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was tasked with overseeing the certification of electoral college votes on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The indictment’s allegations that Trump attempted to pressure the Vice President to take particular acts in connection with his role at the certification proceeding thus involve official conduct, and Trump is at least presumptively immune from prosecution for such conduct,” Roberts wrote.
“The question then becomes whether that presumption of immunity is rebutted under the circumstances,” he added.
Roberts acknowledged the broad range of other conduct in Trump’s indictment, including false claims of voter fraud, the alleged fake elector scheme, and his actions on Jan. 6.
The court asked the lower district court to determine whether these actions —which involved state governments, private actors and the public — were taken in an official or unofficial capacity.
“Determining whose characterization may be correct, and with respect to which conduct, requires a fact-specific analysis of the indictment’s extensive and interrelated allegations,” Roberts wrote.
“Trump asserts a far broader immunity than the limited one the Court recognizes,” Roberts wrote.
Trump’s legal team, citing the impeachment judgment clause, had argued that the federal government’s case against him should be dismissed because conviction by the U.S. Senate is a “necessary step” before criminal prosecution. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted in his Jan. 6 impeachment trial.
But Roberts wrote that the clause doesn’t cover what happens if a president is never impeached. Nor does it or other historical documents address or “even consider” how immunity from prosecution applies to a former president.
At the same time, the Justice Department “for its part takes a similarly broad view, contending that the President enjoys no immunity from criminal prosecution for any action.
“It is the Government’s burden to rebut the presumption of immunity,” Roberts wrote.
One of the biggest takeaways with Monday’s ruling is that the justices are “something of a mixed bag” on the question of presidential immunity, said Steve Vladeck, an expert on federal courts and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. In the court’s ruling, the majority said sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Another important moment: The court weighed in on whether prosecutors, in trying a former president, can cite official acts — things for which the president could not otherwise be prosecuted — as evidence. The majority said no.
“That’s actually a really big deal, even if it’s a little technical, and it’s going to throw a pretty big wrench not just into the prosecution of former President Trump, but future efforts to hold presidents liable if they commit crimes while in office,” Vladeck said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett split from her fellow conservative justices on this point.
In a separate concurrence, Barrett wrote that “the Constitution does not require blinding juries to the circumstances surrounding conduct for which Presidents can be held liable” and that rules around evidence already exist to handle concerns about prejudicing the jury on a case-by-case basis.
She broadly agreed with the majority that former presidents enjoyed some level of immunity for their official acts while in office. But she wrote that “a President facing prosecution may challenge the constitutionality of a criminal statute as applied to official acts alleged in the indictment. If that challenge fails, however, he must stand trial.”
The Supreme Court’s decision fell along ideological lines. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson all dissented from the conservative majority.
Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that the court’s decision to grant former president criminal immunity “reshapes the institution of the Presidency.”
“It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law,” she added.
Sotomayor wrote that the president, under the majority’s reasoning, will now be protected from prosecution for a variety of actions while in office.
The justice raised a few examples. “Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military dissenting coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune.”
Even if these “nightmare scenarios” never pan out, “the damage has been done,” Sotomayor wrote.
“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.”

Watch the video in the player above.
Because the Supreme Court did not determine which of Trump’s actions were unofficial acts, special counsel Jack Smith is going to have to wait for the lower district court to weigh in, which takes some time, said Chris Geidner, a longtime Supreme Court journalist who publishes the Law Dork newsletter.
“You’re going to have briefings, you’re going to have probably hearings, before we even get to a point that Jack Smith knows what’s allowed to go forward to trial,” he told PBS News’ William Brangham on Monday.
If Smith had received clear definitions from the high court, he could make faster determinations about what can stay in the federal indictment, Geidner added.
The likelihood of this case going to trial before Americans go to the polls in November is slim. Before Monday’s landmark decision, experts criticized the Supreme Court for slow walking Trump’s immunity bid.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who presides over the case involving Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election, will set the timing for the trial. She’s previously promised to give Trump’s legal team about 90 days to prepare.
Chutkan rejected Trump’s immunity claim in December, ruling that the U.S. presidency “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.”
“Today’s decision tilts even more power toward the office of the presidency, whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican,” Vladeck said.
It also tilts power “away from Congress, which passes criminal statutes that presumably apply to the president, tilts that power away from courts, which are the ones that are supposedly holding presidents liable when they engage in wrongdoing,” Vladeck said.
Most importantly, Vladeck said, it tilts power away from the people, because the only option left for accountability for presidents becomes impeachment, “ a process that is weak enough on its own, and hard to imagine being especially effective in a late second term of a presidency.”
PBS News’ Kyle Midura reported for this story.
Left: Then-President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a Jan. 6 rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters
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