For Trump, a 'Critical Day' in Court

Federal appeals court sounds skeptical about former president's immunity defense
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 9, 2024 10:10 AM CST
Updated Jan 9, 2024 11:43 AM CST
Tuesday Is a Crucial Day in Court for Trump
Former President Donald Trump in a file photo.   (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Updated after the hearing's conclusion. Amid the often-confusing barrage of developments in the four criminal cases of Donald Trump, Tuesday offered a pivotal one. A federal appeals court heard arguments on a fundamental Trump defense claim—that he's immune from prosecution, reports the Wall Street Journal. (The hearing is part of the federal election interference case brought against Trump by special counsel Jack Smith.) Should the three-member court side in Trump's favor, the case could "unravel," writes David Leonhardt at the New York Times. However, all three judges sounded skeptical about the immunity defense, notes Politico. It's not clear when their decision will be released, but they have pledged to move quickly.

  • 'Critical day': Even if Trump loses, he will almost certainly go to the Supreme Court. It's part of a strategy to delay any resolution until after the 2024 election, because he could try to quash the pair of federal cases against him should he win re-election. Smith hopes to start the trial March 4, though that seems unlikely given the legal wrangling over the immunity issue. All in all, "today is a critical day for determining how Trump's trials are likely to play out this year," the Times' Alan Feuer tells Leonhardt.

  • Pandora: "To authorize the prosecution of a president for official acts would open Pandora's box from which this nation may never recover," Trump attorney D. John Sauer told the judges, per CNN. Referring to Trump's online posts about the 2020 election, while he was still president, he said, "All those tweets are obviously immune."
  • Countering: It would be "awfully scary" if there were no mechanism in place to hold presidents accountable for criminal actions, assistant special counsel James Pearce told the panel. He said the charges are so unusual that no "tit-for-tat" prosecutions would follow. "Never before [have] there been allegations that a sitting president has, with private individuals and using the levers of power, tried to fundamentally subvert the democratic republic and the electoral system," Pearce said.
  • Skepticism: In what the Washington Post sees as a potentially troubling sign for Trump, the lone Republican-appointed judge, Karen Henderson, declared: "I think it's paradoxical to say that his (a president's) constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed allows him to violate criminal law." Henderson was appointed by George HW Bush, and the other justices—Florence Pan and Michelle Childs—were appointed by President Biden. Like Politico (and most other outlets), the AP found that all three justices "expressed deep skepticism" about the immunity defense.
  • In person: Trump attended in person, though he was not obligated to be there, underscoring the day's importance. "I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity, very simple," he told reporters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel after the hearing, per CNN.
  • The four cases: Keep track of developments in all four criminal cases via Politico.
(More Donald Trump stories.)

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