The Main Takeaway of Trump v United States

3 Jul 2024

Trump v. United States Court Filing, retrieved on July 1, 2024, is part of HackerNoon’s Legal PDF Series. You can jump to any part in this filing here. This part is 13 of 21.


The main takeaway of today’s decision is that all of a President’s official acts, defined without regard to motive or intent, are entitled to immunity that is “at least . . . presumptive,” and quite possibly “absolute.” Ante, at 14. Whenever the President wields the enormous power of his office, the majority says, the criminal law (at least presumptively) cannot touch him. This official-acts immunity has “no firm grounding in constitutional text, history, or precedent.” Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U. S. 215, 280 (2022). Indeed, those “standard grounds for constitutional decisionmaking,” id., at 279, all point in the opposite direction. No matter how you look at it, the majority’s official-acts immunity is utterly indefensible.


The majority calls for a “careful assessment of the scope of Presidential power under the Constitution.” Ante, at 5. For the majority, that “careful assessment” does not involve the Constitution’s text. I would start there.

The Constitution’s text contains no provision for immunity from criminal prosecution for former Presidents. Of course, “the silence of the Constitution on this score is not dispositive.” United States v. Nixon, 418 U. S. 683, 706, n. 16 (1974). Insofar as the majority rails against the notion that a “‘specific textual basis’” is required, ante, at 37 (quoting Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 731, 750, n. 31 (1982)), it is attacking an argument that has not been made here. The omission in the text of the Constitution is worth noting, however, for at least three reasons.

First, the Framers clearly knew how to provide for immunity from prosecution. They did provide a narrow immunity for legislators in the Speech or Debate Clause. See Art. I, §6, cl. 1 (“Senators and Representatives . . . shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place”). They did not extend the same or similar immunity to Presidents.

Second, “some state constitutions at the time of the Framing specifically provided ‘express criminal immunities’ to sitting governors.” Brief for Scholars of Constitutional Law as Amici Curiae 4 (quoting S. Prakash, Prosecuting and Punishing Our Presidents, 100 Tex. L. Rev. 55, 69 (2021)). The Framers chose not to include similar language in the Constitution to immunize the President. If the Framers “had wanted to create some constitutional privilege to shield the President . . . from criminal indictment,” they could have done so. Memorandum from R. Rotunda to K. Starr re: Indictability of the President 18 (May 13, 1998). They did not.

Third, insofar as the Constitution does speak to this question, it actually contemplates some form of criminal liability for former Presidents. The majority correctly rejects Trump’s argument that a former President cannot be prosecuted unless he has been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate for the same conduct. See ante, at 32–34; Part IV–C, infra. The majority ignores, however, that the Impeachment Judgment Clause cuts against its own position.

That Clause presumes the availability of criminal process as a backstop by establishing that an official impeached and convicted by the Senate “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” Art. I, §3, cl. 7 (emphasis added). That Clause clearly contemplates that a former President may be subject to criminal prosecution for the same conduct that resulted (or could have resulted) in an impeachment judgment—including conduct such as “Bribery,” Art. II, §4, which implicates official acts almost by definition.[1]


Aware of its lack of textual support, the majority points out that this Court has “recognized Presidential immunities and privileges ‘rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history.’” Ante, at 10 (quoting Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 749). That is true, as far as it goes. Nothing in our history, however, supports the majority’s entirely novel immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts.

The historical evidence that exists on Presidential immunity from criminal prosecution cuts decisively against it. For instance, Alexander Hamilton wrote that former Presidents would be “liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” The Federalist No. 69, p. 452 (J. Harv. Lib. ed. 2009).

For Hamilton, that was an important distinction between “the king of Great Britain,” who was “sacred and inviolable,” and the “President of the United States,” who “would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace.” Id., at 458. In contrast to the king, the President should be subject to “personal responsibility” for his actions, “stand[ing] upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware,” whose State Constitutions gave them some immunity. Id., at 452.

At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison, who was aware that some state constitutions provided governors immunity, proposed that the Convention “conside[r] what privileges ought to be allowed to the Executive.” 2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, p. 503 (M. Farrand ed. 1911). There is no record of any such discussion. Ibid. Delegate Charles Pinckney later explained that “[t]he Convention which formed the Constitution well knew” that “no subject had been more abused than privilege,” and so it “determined to . . . limi[t] privilege to what was necessary, and no more.” 3 id., at 385. “No privilege . . . was intended for [the] Executive.” Ibid.[2]

Other commentators around the time of the Founding observed that federal officials had no immunity from prosecution, drawing no exception for the President. James Wilson recognized that federal officers who use their official powers to commit crimes “may be tried by their country; and if their criminality is established, the law will punish. A grand jury may present, a petty jury may convict, and the judges will pronounce the punishment.” 2 Debates on the Constitution 177 (J. Elliot ed. 1836).

A few decades later, Justice Story evinced the same understanding. He explained that, when a federal official commits a crime in office, “it is indispensable, that provision should be made, that the common tribunals of justice should be at liberty to entertain jurisdiction of the offence, for the purpose of inflicting, the common punishment applicable to unofficial offenders.” 2 Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §780, pp. 250–251 (1833). Without a criminal trial, he explained, “the grossest official offenders might escape without any substantial punishment, even for crimes, which would subject their fellow citizens to capital punishment.” Id., at 251.

This historical evidence reinforces that, from the very beginning, the presumption in this Nation has always been that no man is free to flout the criminal law. The majority fails to recognize or grapple with the lack of historical evidence for its new immunity. With nothing on its side of the ledger, the most the majority can do is claim that the historical evidence is a wash.

See ante, at 38–39. It claims that the Court previously has described the “relevant historical evidence on the question of Presidential immunity” as “‘fragmentary’” and not worthy of consideration. Ante, at 38 (quoting Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 752, n. 31).

Yet the Court has described only the evidence regarding “the President’s immunity from damages liability” as “fragmentary.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 751–752, n. 31 (emphasis added). Moreover, far from dismissing that evidence as irrelevant, the Fitzgerald Court was careful to note that “[t]he best historical evidence clearly support[ed]” the immunity from damages liability that it recognized, and it relied in part on that historical evidence to overcome the lack of any textual basis for its immunity. Id., at 152, n. 31.

The majority ignores this reliance. It seems history matters to this Court only when it is convenient. See, e.g., New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen, 597 U. S. 1 (2022); Dobbs, 597 U. S. 215.


Our country’s history also points to an established understanding, shared by both Presidents and the Justice Department, that former Presidents are answerable to the criminal law for their official acts. Cf. Chiafalo v. Washington, 591 U. S. 578, 592–593 (2020) (“‘Long settled and established practice’ may have ‘great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions’” (quoting The Pocket Veto Case, 279 U. S. 655, 689 (1929))). Consider Watergate, for example.

After the Watergate tapes revealed President Nixon’s misuse of official power to obstruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigation of the Watergate burglary, President Ford pardoned Nixon. Both Ford’s pardon and Nixon’s acceptance of the pardon necessarily “rested on the understanding that the former President faced potential criminal liability.”

Brief for United States 15; see also Public Papers of the Presidents, Gerald R. Ford, Vol. 1, Sept. 8, 1974, p. 103 (1975) (granting former President Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon . . . for all offenses against the United States which he . . . has committed or may have committed or taken part in during” his Presidency); R. Nixon, Statement by Former President Richard Nixon to P. Buchen, Counsel to President Ford, p. 1 (Sept. 8, 1974) (accepting “full and absolute pardon for any charges which might be brought against me for actions taken during the time I was President of the United States”).

Subsequent special counsel and independent counsel investigations have also operated on the assumption that the Government can criminally prosecute former Presidents for their official acts, where they violate the criminal law. See, e.g., 1 L. Walsh, Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Investigations and Prosecutions 445 (1993) (“[B]ecause a President, and certainly a past President, is subject to prosecution . . . the conduct of President Reagan in the Iran/contra matter was reviewed by Independent Counsel against the applicable statutes. It was concluded that [his] conduct fell well short of criminality which could be successfully prosecuted”).

Indeed, Trump’s own lawyers during his second impeachment trial assured Senators that declining to impeach Trump for his conduct related to January 6 would not leave him “in any way above the law.” 2 Proceedings of the U. S. Senate in the Impeachment Trial of Donald John Trump, S. Doc. 117–2, p. 144 (2021).

They insisted that a former President “is like any other citizen and can be tried in a court of law.” Ibid.; see also 1 id., S. Doc. 117–3, at 339 (Trump’s impeachment counsel stating that “no former officeholder is immune” from the judicial process “for investigation, prosecution, and punishment”); id., at 322–323 (Trump’s impeachment counsel stating: “If my colleagues on this side of the Chamber actually think that President Trump committed a criminal offense . . . [a]fter he is out of office, you go and arrest him”). Now that Trump is facing criminal charges for those acts, though, the tune has changed. Being treated “like any other citizen” no longer seems so appealing.

In sum, the majority today endorses an expansive vision of Presidential immunity that was never recognized by the Founders, any sitting President, the Executive Branch, or even President Trump’s lawyers, until now. Settled understandings of the Constitution are of little use to the majority in this case, and so it ignores them.

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