“Citizen Trump”: Federal Appeals Court Ruling Delivers Anti-Authoritarian Declaration
The bipartisan three-judge panel unanimously rejected Trump's claims of immunity from prosecution and warned that Trump's stance on executive power would "collapse our system of separated powers."
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The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit unanimously ruled that Donald Trump is not immune from criminal prosecution in the federal 2020 election subversion case. In no uncertain terms, they ruled that Trump is not above the law. He’s just like any other criminal defendant:
For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution.
The resounding decision from Judges J. Michelle Childs, Florence Y. Pan, and Karen Henderson was presented without dissenting opinions. The bipartisan three-judge panel delivered a strong, unified statement: The President of the United States is not above the law.
It’s an affirmation of Judge Tanya Chutkan’s previous decision and repudiation of every one of the claims presented by Trump’s legal team - including the argument that Trump could order SEAL Team Six to kill his political rival and still be immune from criminal prosecution unless he’s impeached first. Trump’s extremism might mobilize his base, but it fails in court.
Historic in its nature, the ruling’s impact goes beyond Trump and affirms that any former or future President can, in fact, be prosecuted for crimes committed while in office. That is, of course, if it stands. Trump is expected to appeal the ruling to the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court.
Legal experts wondered why the DC Circuit Court took so long to decide after hearing oral arguments 28 days ago. Now we know why. The 57-page ruling is robust and incisive. Although very measured, it does not mince words. The ruling is well-written, ironclad in its arguments, and tailor-made for an imminent Supreme Court review.
The ruling picked apart Trump’s legal defenses one by one. It eviscerated Trump’s claims of absolute immunity as antithetical to the vision of the Founding Fathers and a stance that would “collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches.”
The judges also made a point to frame Trump’s plot to overturn the 2020 election - actions they were careful to call “alleged conduct” - as “an unprecedented assault on the structure of our government.”
The court rejected Trump’s claims that his alleged crimes were “official acts” and that impeachment would need to be a prerequisite to criminal prosecution. They found these claims to be unsupported by “precedent, history or the text and structure of the Constitution.”
This ruling was truly a powerful read. By emphasizing that no individual, not even the president, is above the law, these judges reinforced the foundational checks and balances designed to prevent authoritarian overreach. This decision underscores the judiciary's role in upholding these principles.
You can read an annotated version of the ruling from The New York Times or a searchable version of the ruling sourced directly from the court. But if you want a quick look at the highlights from the 57-page ruling, stick with me.
Let’s dive in.
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Highlights From The Immunity Ruling
Summarizing The 2020 Election Plot
The ruling spends a good deal of time spotlighting the seriousness of the allegations in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s indictment. The judges summarize Trump’s conduct and don’t hold back in their description of how damaging his actions were to our democracy:
Former President Trump’s alleged efforts to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election were, if proven, an unprecedented assault on the structure of our government. He allegedly injected himself into a process in which the President has no role — the counting and certifying of the Electoral College votes — thereby undermining constitutionally established procedures and the will of the Congress.
Debunking Trump’s Absolute Immunity Claims
The ruling laid out, in great detail, exactly why Trump’s claims of absolute immunity are absolutely unfounded. They also make sure to discuss in non-legalese exactly how authoritarian Trump’s claims are and that his alleged conduct violated the rights of Americans:
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. Nor can we sanction his apparent contention that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of individual citizens to vote and to have their votes count.
This ruling is an unmistakable takedown of the unitary executive theory, which I write about often. It’s the modern conservative theory that Article II of the Constitution renders the president an all-powerful figure above accountability and checks on their power. This is the very same theory that is powering Trump’s authoritarian second-term agenda and the right-wing groups behind Project 2025.
The three-judge panel vehemently disagreed with this stance and didn’t hesitate to outline its potential impact if the court accepted this authoritarian premise:
At bottom, former President Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches. Presidential immunity against federal indictment would mean that, as to the President, the Congress could not legislate, the Executive could not prosecute and the Judiciary could not review. We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter. Careful evaluation of these concerns leads us to conclude that there is no functional justification for immunizing former Presidents from federal prosecution in general or for immunizing former President Trump from the specific charges in the Indictment.
Not Official Acts
When it came to the argument that Trump’s conduct constituted “official acts,” the judges ruled that these alleged acts didn’t comply with the law and went beyond his official duties as president:
The Indictment alleges that the assertedly “official” actions at issue here were undertaken by former President Trump in furtherance of a conspiracy to unlawfully overstay his term as President and to displace his duly elected successor. That alleged conduct violated the constitutionally established design for determining the results of the Presidential election as well as the Electoral Count Act of 1887, neither of which establishes a role for the President in counting and certifying the Electoral College votes.
Far from official acts, the court ruled that Trump’s alleged conduct undermined his constitutional mandate to faithfully enforce US law:
The President, of course, also has a duty under the Take Care Clause to faithfully enforce the laws. This duty encompasses following the legal procedures for determining election results and ensuring that executive power vests in the new President at the constitutionally appointed time. To the extent former President Trump maintains that the post-2020 election litigation that his campaign and supporters unsuccessfully pursued implemented his Take Care duty, he is in error. Former President Trump’s alleged conduct conflicts with his constitutional mandate to enforce the laws governing the process of electing the new President.
At the core of their arguments, Trump’s legal team repeatedly claimed that the only way Trump, or any former president, could be convicted of a crime committed while in office would be if they were impeached and convicted by Congress first. The court totally rejected this argument.
As a basis for their rejection, the court cites the Impeachment Judgement Clause itself:
The second part [of the Impeachment Judgement Clause] makes clear that the limited consequences of impeachment do not immunize convicted officers from criminal prosecution: “[T]he Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
That reads pretty clearly to me. The judges wrote that “former President Trump’s interpretation runs counter to the text, structure and purpose of the Impeachment Judgment Clause.”
The ruling outlines what would happen if they accepted Trump’s argument. What they depict amounts to a lawless dystopia where the President is free to commit crimes as long as he isn’t impeached and convicted - a.k.a. protected by his political party:
Even if there is an atextual basis for treating Presidents differently from subordinate government officials, as former President Trump suggests, his proposed interpretation still would leave a President free to commit all manner of crimes with impunity, so long as he is not impeached and convicted. Former President Trump’s interpretation also would permit the commission of crimes not readily categorized as impeachable.
The court went on to cite 30 Senate Republicans, by name, who delivered comments during the Jan 6 impeachment trial. Their comments bolster the basis for the court’s decision.
Senate Republicans used the fact that Trump was no longer in office as a basis to avoid convicting Trump in his impeachment trial. Mitch McConnell even explicitly said Trump could be prosecuted after leaving office:
“We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former Presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
In closing, the court summarized their decision:
We have balanced former President Trump’s asserted interests in executive immunity against the vital public interests that favor allowing this prosecution to proceed. We conclude that “[c]oncerns of public policy, especially as illuminated by our history and the structure of our government” compel the rejection of his claim of immunity in this case. See Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 747–48. We also have considered his contention that he is entitled to categorical immunity from criminal liability for any assertedly “official” action that he took as President — a contention that is unsupported by precedent, history or the text and structure of the Constitution. Finally, we are unpersuaded by his argument that this prosecution is barred by “double jeopardy principles.” Accordingly, the order of the district court is AFFIRMED.
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What Happens Next?
Trump’s main court tactic is delay. He exploits due process and floods the system with appeals and frivolous claims like this immunity defense. His main intent is to delay, which he has successfully done thus far. This immunity claim Trump filed managed to get the previously scheduled March trial date for the election subversion trial delayed pending a decision.
Now, it’s up to the Supreme Court to determine how much longer this process will take.
Donald Trump has until February 12 to appeal the Appeals Court ruling to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has a few options:
Take up the case and quickly affirm or deny this Appeals Court ruling.
Stay the Appeals Court ruling, take up the case, and choose not to hear it for a few months or until their next term, assuring that the trial doesn’t happen before election day.
Choose not to take up the case and allow this Appeals Court ruling to stand, which would mean Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case can move to trial within the next few months.
We’ll see what route the Supreme Court decides to take, but one thing is for certain: This DC Appeals Court ruling makes a damn good case against presidential immunity. Most legal experts I’ve heard from have a hard time picturing even this conservative Supreme Court protecting Trump from prosecution.
Only time will tell.