Judge Rejects Trump’s Claim of ‘Presidential Immunity’ in 2020 Election Case

Being president doesn’t confer a lifelong “get-out-of-jail-free” pass, the judge said in her ruling.
Judge Rejects Trump’s Claim of ‘Presidential Immunity’ in 2020 Election Case
Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York City on Nov. 6, 2023. (Curtis Means/Pool/Getty Images)
Caden Pearson

A federal judge on Dec. 1 rejected former President Donald Trump’s claim of presidential immunity and other constitutional defenses in his 2020 election case.

In October, President Trump asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to dismiss the election interference charges against him in Washington on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution grants him “absolute immunity” for acts within the “outer perimeter” of a president’s “official responsibility.”

However, on Dec. 1, Judge Chutkan, an Obama appointee, found no legal foundation to conclude that presidents are immune to criminal charges after leaving office.

In a 48-page ruling, the judge wrote that neither the U.S. Constitution nor any court or branch of government “has ever accepted” this argument, “and this court will not so hold.”

“Whatever immunities a sitting president may enjoy, the United States has only one Chief Executive at a time, and that position does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass,” Judge Chutkan wrote. “Former Presidents enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability.

“Defendant may be subject to federal investigation, indictment, prosecution, conviction, and punishment for any criminal acts undertaken while in office.”

The ruling comes as President Trump prepares for a trial to defend himself against accusations from the Justice Department that he conspired to undermine the 2020 election results.

In August, President Trump pleaded not guilty to four felony charges brought by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who alleged that he conspired to defraud the United States and obstruct the certification of the 2020 election results at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and that he conspired “against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted.”

The indictment accuses President Trump of lying when he alleged that there was fraud in the 2020 presidential election and that he was the winner.

Prosecutors argue that President Trump knowingly spread “false” claims about the 2020 election results. Lawyers for the former president reject this, arguing that the prosecution “falsely claims that President Trump’s motives were impure.”

Lawyers for President Trump argued in their Oct. 5 motion that his actions following the 2020 election “are within the ambit of his office,” and therefore, “he is absolutely immune from prosecution.” They contended that, as president, he acted to “ensure election integrity.”

Judge Chutkan disagreed, writing in her ruling: “Nothing in the Constitution’s text or allocation of government powers requires exempting former Presidents from that solemn process. And neither the People who adopted the Constitution nor those who have safeguarded it across generations have ever understood it to do so.

“Defendant’s four-year service as Commander in Chief did not bestow on him the divine right of kings to evade the criminal accountability that governs his fellow citizens.”

Judge Chutkan also rejected President Trump’s argument that his acquittal in the U.S. Senate during his second impeachment, related to the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol breach, meant that he couldn’t be prosecuted in the federal court.

“But neither traditional double jeopardy principles nor the Impeachment Judgment Clause provide that a prosecution following impeachment acquittal violates double jeopardy,” she wrote.

“The indictment here does not violate double jeopardy principles.”

Judge Chutkan explained that this is because impeachment threatens only removal from office and disqualification from holding and enjoying any office of honor, trust, or profit, “neither of which is a criminal penalty.”

Immunity also wouldn’t apply to President Trump’s argument that the indictment violates his due process rights and that his alleged conduct was protected by the First Amendment, the judge ruled.

Judge Chutkan wrote that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect speech “that is used as an instrument of a crime,” which forms part of the allegations in President Trump’s indictment, she noted.

President Trump has previously accused Judge Chutkan of bias against him. She recently denied a request from Trump lawyers that she recuse herself from the case over remarks she made while sentencing people for actions related to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. One of those remarks expressed her belief that President Trump “should be prosecuted and imprisoned,” according to lawyers for President Trump.

There was no basis for recusal, Judge Chutkan found after reviewing the motion. She said her statements during the cited sentencing hearings “certainly do not manifest a deep-seated prejudice that would make fair judgment impossible.”

She has sentenced at least 38 people who were convicted of crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.