By Andrew Goudsward
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Donald Trump does not have immunity from charges that he plotted to overturn his 2020 election defeat, bringing the former U.S. president a step closer to an unprecedented criminal trial.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected Trump’s claim that he cannot be prosecuted because the allegations relate to his official responsibilities as president.
“We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter,” the unanimous panel wrote.
The court concluded that any “executive immunity” that may have shielded Trump from criminal charges while he served as president “no longer protects him against this prosecution.”
The ruling, which Trump is almost certain to appeal, rebuffs his attempt to avoid a trial on charges that he undermined American democracy and the transfer of power, even as he consolidates his position as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.
The case will remain paused until at least Feb. 12 to give Trump time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump’s lawyers argued that former presidents were entitled to sweeping legal protections and could not be criminally prosecuted for official actions unless first impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office by the Senate.
Trump was impeached twice by the House, but each time Senate Republicans cast sufficient votes to acquit him of the charges.
IMMUNITY FOR ASSASSINATION
Judges homed in on the broad nature of Trump’s claim at a Jan. 9 hearing, questioning a Trump lawyer over whether even a president who ordered military commandos to assassinate a political rival could escape criminal prosecution without initial action by Congress.
The panel wrote in its ruling that giving Trump immunity in this case would give presidents “unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results.
Trump has repeatedly voiced his immunity claim on the campaign trail and social media, saying in a Jan. 18 post, “ALL PRESIDENTS MUST HAVE COMPLETE & TOTAL PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY, OR THE AUTHORITY & DECISIVENESS OF A PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WILL BE STRIPPED & GONE FOREVER.”
Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The indictment brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith accuses Trump of using false claims of voter fraud to pressure state lawmakers, Justice Department officials and then-Vice President Mike Pence to thwart the certification of the election results. It is one four criminal cases facing Trump and one of two alleging interference in the 2020 election.
Trump has pleaded not guilty to four felony counts and accused prosecutors of a politically motivated effort to damage his campaign.
The immunity argument was previously rejected by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in December, prompting Trump to appeal.
If Trump wins the election, he could seek to pardon himself or direct the Justice Department to shut down the case.
Trump can ask the full D.C. Circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling, potentially leading to weeks or months of additional delay.
(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward, additional reporting by Nathan Layne and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)