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US Supreme Court rules Donald Trump is partly protected from criminal prosecution

“The president is not above the law,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “But Congress may not criminalise the president’s conduct in carrying out the responsibilities of the Executive Branch under the Constitution.”

Justices of the US Supreme Court. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

The court’s decision stopped short of tossing out the indictment, but Trump framed it as a victory, saying on social media immediately after the ruling was announced that it was a “big win for our Constitution and democracy”.

Speaking from the White House on Monday evening, Biden said the Supreme Court decision meant that there were “virtually no limits on what the president can do” and went on to urge voters to block a second Trump administration.

“The public has a right to know the answer about what happened on January 6, before they are asked to vote again this year,” he said. “Now because of today’s decision, that is highly, highly unlikely. It’s a terrible disservice to the people of this nation.”

The ruling comes just weeks after Trump was convicted by a New York state jury on 34 felony counts in a 2016 election-interference trial involving falsified business records and hush money paid to an adult-film star. He is scheduled to be sentenced in that case July 11.

The former president was indicted in this case nearly a year ago on four counts, arising from Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters. Smith’s indictment alleged that Trump conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

From left, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, former president Trump and Special Counsel Jack Smith. Photo: Various sources / AFP

The matter is one of three criminal cases still pending against Trump – involving more than 50 state and federal felony counts, all delayed pending various appeals; in addition to the January 6 trial, there is the federal documents case in Florida and a state case alleging election interference in Georgia.

The cases have injected more rancour into the rematch between Trump and Biden in the current election cycle, with Biden supporters maintaining that the former president’s actions make him unfit for office, while Trump’s supporters accuse Democrats of using the US Justice Department to cripple his campaign.

Monday’s ruling “neither stops Trump from being a candidate or being elected”, said Terry Haines, founder of Washington consultancy Pangaea Policy. “It doesn’t make Trump’s life easier, either – so, in that sense, Trump ‘lost’ the case.

“And the need to decide a case about the limits of POTUS immunity is yet another in the bipartisan parade of vanities and horribles that today debase US politics.”

Trump had asked Chutkan to throw out the charges against him, arguing that he could not be held criminally liable for acts conducted during his tenure even after leaving office.

Chutkan denied Trump’s request, and the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld that ruling 3-0. Trump then went to the Supreme Court, which agreed in late February to hear the dispute. The ruling on Monday was the last issued in the court’s current term.

The Supreme Court opinion’s ambiguity leaves the question of whether Trump’s interactions with then-Vice-President Mike Pence in the lead-up to the attack on the US Capitol were “official” – and therefore immune – to be resolved in the district court before the case can proceed.

Chutkan will also need to rule on whether Trump’s efforts to pressure state officials to reverse the certified results of their elections were official.

The indictment alleges that Trump pressed officials in seven states to subvert the results of the election and change electoral votes: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.

Many of the oral arguments in the case referred to the 1982 Supreme Court case of Nixon vs Fitzgerald, a federal civil case which held that “the President’s absolute immunity extends to all acts within the ‘outer perimeter’ of his duties of office” to avoid tying the hands of a president over fear of legal action after leaving office.

Trump’s lawyer John Sauer argued that the entire election-interference indictment was premised on official acts.

However, Trump engaged private lawyers in the effort to overturn the results, something that Sauer conceded during oral arguments could not be considered official acts. His former personal lawyer and former campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani is believed to be among the six unnamed co-conspirators described in the indictment.

Smith’s indictment alleges that one of the co-conspirators “filed a lawsuit against the Governor of Georgia falsely alleging ‘massive election fraud’ accomplished through the voting machine company’s election software and hardware”.

“Before the lawsuit was even filed, the Defendant retweeted a post promoting it,” the indictment states. “The Defendant did this despite the fact that when he had discussed co-conspirator 3’s far-fetched public claims regarding the voting machine company in private with advisers, the Defendant had conceded that they were unsupported.”

Protesters outside the US Supreme Court in Washington on Monday. Photo: AFP

The other federal criminal case against Trump, also brought by Smith, concerns boxes of classified national-security documents that he took with him when he left the White House in 2021. Trump resisted government efforts to retrieve them, with sensitive papers found throughout his Mar-a-Lago estate in south Florida.

Earlier this month, a Georgia appeals court officially paused the state criminal case against Trump, which also accuses the former president of seeking to subvert the 2020 election, to consider the former president’s bid to disqualify lead prosecutor Fani Willis.

A grand jury convened by Willis, in Georgia’s Fulton County, indicted Trump and 18 of his allies on violations of 16 state statutes.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday “undoubtedly disappoints those who hoped it would be some sort of barrier to Trump regaining the presidency, or a counterweight to last week’s negative Biden debate performance”, Haines said.

“But anti-Trump partisans still are helped by the decision because they can combine anew ‘convicted felon’ and ‘under investigation’ as part of their argument.”

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