Former President Trump’s legal team recently suggested that presidential immunity would allow a president to order Navy SEALs to kill a political rival without fear of future criminal prosecution. The appeals court judges met the claims with heavy skepticism, with Trump rival Nikki Haley blasting them as “ridiculous.”
Judge poses hypothetical
Republican frontrunner Trump’s attorney, John Sauer, was asked by Judge Florence Pan, a member of the three-appellate judge panel that will rule on the issue of whether a president could order S.E.A.L. Team Six to assassinate a political rival and be immune from political persecution.
Presses for direct answer
“I asked you a yes-or-no question,” Pan stressed. “Could a president who ordered S.E.A.L. Team Six to assassinate a political rival, [who was] not impeached, would he be subject to criminal prosecution?”
Only if convicted by the Senate
Sauer responded to the hypothetical scenario, “If he were impeached and convicted first…my answer is [a] qualified yes, there is a political process that would have to occur first.”
Trump’s attorneys want charges dropped
In the hearing that reviewed a motion from the former president’s legal team to drop his election interference charges, Sauer contended that the only way to prosecute presidents criminally is if they have already been tried and convicted by the Senate.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’s three-judge panel and special counsel Jack Smith’s team reacted to that argument with heavy skepticism and pushback.
Point out loophole
Biden appointee Judge Michelle Childs noted that presidents could resign instead of facing impeachment, which would allow them to dodge future prosecution under Trump’s attorney’s arguments.
Smith’s team blasts immunity argument
James Pearce, a lawyer in Smith’s team, forcefully criticized the argument that the mechanisms to hold presidents to account for criminal action should be weakened.
“What kind of world are we living in … if a president orders his SEAL team to murder a political rival and then resigns or is not impeached—that is not a crime? I think that is an extraordinarily frightening future that should weigh heavily on the court’s decision,” Pearce said.
Looking over their shoulders
Sauer later argued that the threat of prosecution would heavily affect future presidents’ decisions, saying they would need to worry, “Am I going to jail for this?” when making controversial decisions.
Attempts to undermine investigations
Trump’s bid for immunity to acts committed while in office is part of a last-ditch effort to undermine the D.O.J.’s criminal probe into his role in the January 6 attack and to overturn the 2020 election result. The former president was charged in the case last August.
Biden-led witch hunt
Following the hearing’s conclusion, Trump addressed the press outside the courtroom. He argued that the criminal cases against him were part of an effort by President Joe Biden to win reelection in November.
Opening a can of worms
“It will be bedlam in the country. It is a very bad thing. A very bad precedent, as we said, the opening of a Pandora’s box,” the former president said.
Long-repeated calls for presidential immunity
“When they talk about threat to democracy, that is your real threat to democracy. I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity, very simple,” Trump added.
Haley blasts immunity claims
Rival G.O.P. presidential candidate Nikki Haley mocked Trump’s defense during the latest Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, saying, “No, that’s ridiculous. That’s absolutely ridiculous. You can’t go and kill a political rival and then claim, you know, immunity from a president. I think we have to start doing things that are right.”
Trump is the first and only president, sitting or former, to be criminally charged. He faces 91 felony counts across four criminal indictments by federal and state prosecutors.