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Appeals court rules Trump doesn't have immunity in 2020 criminal election case

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A federal court has ruled that former President Donald Trump does not enjoy broad immunity from federal prosecution for his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is a major legal setback for the former president, who almost certainly will appeal. Joining us now to talk about the court's ruling is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So what did the judges say in their ruling?

JOHNSON: These judges said Trump does not enjoy absolute immunity from federal prosecution. They wrote, in this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump with all the defenses of any other criminal defendant. And they wrote, it would be a real paradox if the president, who has a special constitutional duty to ensure laws be executed faithfully, were the sole person capable of defying those laws with impunity. They basically concluded, we can't accept the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter. Doing that would collapse the system of separation of powers.

FADEL: Now, this has been a long legal journey. If you could just remind us how we got here.

JOHNSON: We got here because Trump is facing federal charges for his attempt to stay in office after he lost the election in 2020 to Joe Biden. Prosecutors say that culminated in violence at the Capitol three years ago, and that violence injured 140 law enforcement officers and really shook the foundations of democracy. Trump's pleaded not guilty to those four felony counts and basically argued he has immunity. His lawyers told these judges last month that his actions were official ones he took as president, and that Trump was simply raising questions about the integrity of the election. Now, lawyers for special counsel Jack Smith, who are prosecuting Trump, argued that Trump's legal arguments could undermine democracy and give presidents license to commit crimes while in the White House - serious crimes, like selling nuclear secrets to foreign adversaries.

FADEL: Do we know any more about the appeals court's reasoning? I mean, this is the first time any court has been asked to weigh in on a claim of absolute immunity by a former president.

JOHNSON: The first time, and the first time a former president has been charged with crimes.

FADEL: Right.

JOHNSON: These judges said they're taking these allegations in the indictment seriously at this stage, even though they haven't yet been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They rejected a lot of Donald Trump's claims about tying the hands of presidents. They seem to find them all pretty weak, and they went out of their way to talk about how these allegations that Trump subverted the electoral process and the will of the voters being especially important. They even suggested, Leila, maybe it's a good thing that presidents are a little wary. They said the prospect of federal criminal liability might serve as a structural benefit to deter possible abuses of power and criminal behavior by presidents.

FADEL: So now we expect the former president to appeal here. I mean, walk us through what we might see next.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The appeals court is giving Trump until early next week. They say they're going to return this case to the trial judge by February 13. So the onus is on Trump to appeal to the Supreme Court by Monday. It's a big boost, though - this decision for the special counsel's case. And it means that depending on what the Supreme Court does and how quickly, this trial against Trump could happen this year after all. Trump's campaign spokesman says they are going to appeal. He says prosecuting a president for official acts violates the Constitution and threatens the bedrock of our republic. Trump, of course, faces three other criminal prosecutions in addition to this one here in Washington, D.C.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.