Trump Catches Another Break with Supreme Court Ruling on Presidential Immunity

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Patrons at Union Pub in D.C. watch the debate between former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden on Thursday night.

The Supreme Court’s Monday ruling on presidential immunity was the latest in a string of favorable developments for Donald Trump, who once faced mounting questions about how he’d balance time in court with campaigning for a return to office.

The 6-3 decision, which pointed to further legal delays for the former president, came as his opponent, President Biden, confronted a campaign crisis after a widely panned debate performance last week. Less than 24 hours after that debate, the Supreme Court ruled that federal prosecutors improperly charged a defendant over the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and overturned a 40-year-old legal precedent that conservatives have long targeted.

Monday’s ruling sparked some concern from critics about potential implications in a second Trump term. But with two weeks until the scheduled start of the Republican nominating convention, Trump confidently embraced the decision – with three justices he nominated helping form the majority opinion – after months of griping about his legal cases.

“Trump has had a lot of really good luck. His campaign couldn’t have written a better few days,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “Legally he still has issues, but politically he’s able to claim vindication and nobody will see him in a federal court before the election.”

Trump still faces some challenges. He is in uncharted territory running as a felon facing a polarized electorate, and has alienated many voters with his false claims and combative tone on the campaign trail. He has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a weaponized judicial system, even though there’s no evidence of coordination between the White House and prosecutors in his cases.

But for now, according to The Washington Post presidential polling averages, Trump is narrowly leading Biden nationally and in six of seven key states.

The Monday decision that former presidents are immune from prosecution for official actions taken while in the White House, but not from unofficial acts, further complicates the timing of Trump’s D.C. trial, potentially extending the case until after the election by sending it back to a lower court. The former president faces four federal felony counts for allegedly trying to reverse Biden’s 2020 victory.

“BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” Trump wrote on social media. He later described the decision as “BRILLIANTLY WRITTEN AND WISE” and predicted, without presenting evidence, that many of the his legal cases “WILL NOW DISAPPEAR, OR WITHER INTO OBSCURITY.”

In a win for conservatives last week, the Supreme Court curtailed federal agency power by reversing Chevron, a 40-year-old legal precedent that said courts should defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of the law. In a separate ruling, the court found that prosecutors improperly charged a defendant with obstruction in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, a development Trump’s legal team might use to help defend him in court.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign has experienced an influx of donations after his May 30 conviction in New York on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up a payment to an adult-film actress – essentially erasing the cash advantage Biden and the Democratic National Committee held.

While Trump is claiming complete immunity, a lower court will decide which acts count as official or unofficial. The case is expected to continue to move forward as the former president campaigns.

Democrats and some legal experts expressed concern about the scope of the Supreme Court decision and the implications it could have for an emboldened Trump, should he win a second term.

“This decision will give Donald Trump cover to do exactly what he’s been saying that he wants to do for months, which is an act of revenge and retribution against his political enemies,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said on a call with reporters.

Norman Eisen, senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings, said in an interview that “every American is in more danger today because they have rewritten and restructured our checks and balances and dramatically expanded the power of the presidency.”

The Supreme Court decision caps months of uncertainty over how Trump’s legal entanglements would affect his campaign. He was found guilty in his New York hush money trial, becoming the first former U.S. president convicted of a crime. Federal prosecutors have also charged Trump with illegally hoarding classified documents, but that trial has been postponed indefinitely. Trump also faces state charges in Georgia for trying to undo election results in that state.

“If you’re the Trump legal team, you’re thrilled with this decision because it gives the opportunity to really delay the Jan. 6 trial so there’s no way it’s tried in 2024,” said John Fishwick, a former federal prosecutor.

However, he noted that “there will be a number of hearings rehashing what happened in 2021 on Jan. 6 and all around that time frame. So it’s all going to be relitigated in some way.”

Ty Cobb, a former Trump White House lawyer who has since turned critic, said that while Trump benefited from the Supreme Court’s decision, the ruling itself wasn’t about the former president.

“Is it a win for Trump? You can’t really say it isn’t,” Cobb said. “In terms of what the work was that went into this and the decision that had to be made, it wasn’t a Trump-specific decision. It was a presidency-specific decision of which he was the decided beneficiary.”