The Supreme Court’s Trump immunity decision is a blueprint for dictatorship (2024)

The Court’s six Republicans handed down a decision on Monday that gives Donald Trump such sweeping immunity from prosecution that there are unlikely to be any legal checks on his behavior if he returns to the White House. The Court’s three Democrats dissented.

Trump v. United States is an astonishing opinion. It holds that presidents have broad immunity from criminal prosecution — essentially, a license to commit crimes — so long as they use the official powers of their office to do so.

Broadly speaking, Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion reaches three conclusions. The first is that when the president takes any action under the authority given to him by the Constitution itself, his authority is “conclusive and preclusive” and thus he cannot be prosecuted. Thus, for example, a president could not be prosecuted for pardoning someone, because the Constitution explicitly gives the chief executive the “Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.”

One question that has loomed over this case for months is whether presidential immunity is so broad that the president could order the military to assassinate a political rival. While this case was before a lower court, one judge asked if Trump could be prosecuted if he’d ordered “SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival” and Trump’s lawyer answered that he could not unless Trump had previously been successfully impeached and convicted for doing so.

Roberts’s opinion in Trump, however, seems to go even further than Trump’s lawyer did. The Constitution, after all, states that the president “shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” So, if presidential authority is “conclusive and preclusive” when presidents exercise their constitutionally granted powers, the Court appears to have ruled that yes, Trump could order the military to assassinate one of his political opponents. And nothing can be done to him for it.

As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writes in dissent, “from this day forward, Presidents of tomorrow will be free to exercise the Commander-in-Chief powers, the foreign-affairs powers, and all the vast law enforcement powers enshrined in Article II however they please — including in ways that Congress has deemed criminal and that have potentially grave consequences for the rights and liberties of Americans.”

Roberts’s second conclusion is that presidents also enjoy “at least a presumptive immunity from criminal prosecution for a President’s acts within the outer perimeter of his official responsibility.” Thus, if a president’s action even touches on his official authority (the “outer perimeter” of that authority), then the president enjoys a strong presumption of immunity from prosecution.

This second form of immunity applies when the president uses authority that is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, and it is quite broad — most likely extending even to mere conversations between the president and one of his subordinates.

The Court also says that this second form of immunity is exceptionally strong. As Roberts writes, “the President must therefore be immune from prosecution for an official act unless the Government can show that applying a criminal prohibition to that act would pose no ‘dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.’

Much of Roberts’s opinion, moreover, details just how broad this immunity will be in practice. Roberts claims, for example, that Trump is immune from prosecution for conversations between himself and high-ranking Justice Department officials, where he allegedly urged them to pressure states to “replace their legitimate electors” with fraudulent members of the Electoral College who would vote to install Trump for a second term.

Roberts writes that “the Executive Branch has ‘exclusive authority and absolute discretion’ to decide which crimes to investigate and prosecute,” and thus Trump’s conversations with Justice Department officials fall within his “conclusive and preclusive authority.” Following that logic, Trump could not have been charged with a crime if he had ordered the Justice Department to arrest every Democrat who holds elective office.

Elsewhere in his opinion, moreover, Roberts suggests that any conversation between Trump and one of his advisers or subordinates could not be the basis for a prosecution. In explaining why Trump’s attempts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to “fraudulently alter the election results” likely cannot be prosecuted, for example, Roberts points to the fact that the vice president frequently serves “as one of the President’s closest advisers.”

Finally, Roberts does concede that the president may be prosecuted for “unofficial” acts. So, for example, if Trump had personally attempted to shoot and kill then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in the lead-up to the 2020 election, rather than ordering a subordinate to do so, then Trump could probably be prosecuted for murder.

But even this caveat to Roberts’s sweeping immunity decision is not very strong. Roberts writes that “in dividing official from unofficial conduct, courts may not inquire into the President’s motives.” And Roberts even limits the ability of prosecutors to pursue a president who accepts a bribe in return for committing an official act, such as pardoning a criminal who pays off the president. In Roberts’s words, a prosecutor may not “admit testimony or private records of the President or his advisers probing the official act itself.”

That means that, while the president can be prosecuted for an “unofficial” act, the prosecutors may not prove that he committed this crime using evidence drawn from the president’s “official” actions.

The practical implications of this ruling are astounding. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in a dissenting opinion, “imagine a President states in an official speech that he intends to stop a political rival from passing legislation that he opposes, no matter what it takes to do so,” it follows from Roberts’s opinion that the ensuing murder indictment “could include no allegation of the President’s public admission of premeditated intent to support” the proposition that the president intended to commit murder.

Monday’s decision, in other words, ensures that, should Trump return to power, he will do so with hardly any legal checks. Under the Republican justices’ decision in Trump, a future president can almost certainly order the assassination of his rivals. He can wield the authority of the presidency to commit countless crimes. And he can order a subordinate to do virtually anything.

And nothing can be done to him.

The Supreme Court’s Trump immunity decision is a blueprint for dictatorship (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jeremiah Abshire

Last Updated:

Views: 6787

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jeremiah Abshire

Birthday: 1993-09-14

Address: Apt. 425 92748 Jannie Centers, Port Nikitaville, VT 82110

Phone: +8096210939894

Job: Lead Healthcare Manager

Hobby: Watching movies, Watching movies, Knapping, LARPing, Coffee roasting, Lacemaking, Gaming

Introduction: My name is Jeremiah Abshire, I am a outstanding, kind, clever, hilarious, curious, hilarious, outstanding person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.