Trump ruling would give presidents immunity to assassinate rivals, accept bribes and order coups, say liberal Supreme Court justices

In their dissenting opinion, they express ‘fear’ for the future of democracy, arguing that thanks to the ruling the president is now a ‘king above the law’

Donald Trump during a rally in Philadelphia, June 22.
Donald Trump during a rally in Philadelphia, June 22.Anna Moneymaker (Getty Images)
Miguel Jiménez

The Supreme Court ruling that grants broad immunity to Donald Trump for his acts as president marks a before and after in the laws that can be applied to the leader of the White House. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has exempted the president from responsibility in the exercise of his constitutional authority and declared his official acts presumptively immune from criminal prosecution. According to the three liberal justices of the Supreme Court, this ruling opens the way to “nightmare scenarios,” in which a president can enjoy immunity even for murdering political rivals, accepting bribes and carrying out a coup d’état.

“The president is now a king above the law,” reads the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and seconded by Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “We fear for our democracy.”

The dissenting opinion gives a bleak vision of the implications of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling. “The president of the United States is the most powerful person in the country, and possibly the world. When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution,” it argues.

“Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune. Let the president violate the law, let him exploit the trappings of his office for personal gain, let him use his official power for evil ends. Because if he knew that he may one day face liability for breaking the law, he might not be as bold and fearless as we would like him to be. That is the majority’s message today,” it continues.

“Nightmare scenarios”

“Even if these nightmare scenarios never play out, and I pray they never do, the damage has been done. The relationship between the president and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the president is now a king above the law,” the liberal justices say in the dissenting opinion.

“Whether described as presumptive or absolute, under the majority’s rule, a president’s use of any official power for any purpose, even the most corrupt, is immune from prosecution. That is just as bad as it sounds, and it is baseless,” they argue.

The liberal justices also criticize another aspect of the ruling that will shield Donald Trump and make it more difficult for him to prosecuted for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 elections. The ruling on Monday argues that evidence relating to acts for which the president is immune cannot play any role in any criminal proceedings against him. “That holding, which will prevent the government from using a president’s official acts to prove knowledge or intent in prosecuting private offenses, is nonsensical,” says the dissenting opinion.

The controversial majority decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, holds that “the nature of presidential power entitles a former president to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority. And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts.” The ruling states that all actions that are “not manifestly or palpably beyond [his] authority” are considered official actions.

Anti-Trump protesters, this Monday in front of the Supreme Court headquarters, in Washington.
Anti-Trump protesters, this Monday in front of the Supreme Court headquarters, in Washington.Leah Millis (REUTERS)

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has tried to qualify the ruling with clarifications and obvious statements, such as “there is no immunity for unofficial acts”; “not everything the president does is official” and “immunity applies equally to all occupants of the Oval Office,” regardless of politics or the party in power. The ruling directly benefits Trump, but it seems that the justices feel compelled to say that the decision was not tailored for the Republican.

No other president has needed to claim they are protected by presidential immunity. The dissenting vote recalls how President Gerald Ford granted a pardon to Richard Nixon after his resignation over the Watergate case. Both Ford’s pardon and Nixon’s acceptance of it “rested on the understanding that the former President faced potential criminal liability,” argue the liberal justices.

“Never in the history of our Republic has a president had reason to believe that he would be immune from criminal prosecution if he used the trappings of his office to violate the criminal law. Moving forward, however, all former presidents will be cloaked in such immunity. If the occupant of that office misuses official power for personal gain, the criminal law that the rest of us must abide will not provide a backstop. With fear for our democracy, I dissent,” ends the dissent.

The “keys of the dictatorship”

The ruling comes amid Trump’s campaign to win a second term at the November 5 presidential election. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling may have cleared Trump’s path to the White House: the lengthy process means that it is near impossible that Trump will stand trial in the Washington criminal case over election subversion before the November election, and the ruling itself has cast doubt on the case.

In addition to this victory, Trump is riding high after President Joe Biden’s dismal performance at the presidential debate last Thursday, which has sown doubts among Democrats about whether he is fit to face a second term. In this context, the Republican has a good chance of returning to the White House. Now, thanks to the conservative justices — three of whom were appointed by Trump —, if he takes office, his official acts would be immune from criminal prosecution.

“They just handed Donald Trump the keys to a dictatorship,” Quentin Fulks, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in a call with reporters. “The Supreme Court just gave Trump a permission slip to assassinate and jail whoever he wants to gain power.”

“It just puts a finer point on the fact that if Donald Trump gets anywhere near the Oval Office again, he will rule as a dictator, he will use his power to harm his political enemies, he will continue to incite political violence, and that is something that we cannot afford,” he added.

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