Was Donald Trump a king as president? The US supreme court thinks so – The Guardian

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Is the president a king? The US supreme court thinks so. On Monday, in its very last ruling of the term, the chief justice, John Roberts, writing for the court’s six conservatives, held in Trump v United States that Donald Trump has “absolute immunity” from criminal prosecution for all acts that can be interpreted as part of the official course of his “core” duties, and “presumptive” immunity for all other official acts.

The move dramatically extends executive authority, insulates past and future presidents from prosecution for illegal or even treasonous actions they carry out while in office and renders the former president largely criminally immune for his role in the January 6 insurrection.

The court said that Trump cannot be charged for some of his “official” actions in the lead-up to the insurrection, including his attempts to pressure Mike Pence and his efforts to weaponize the justice department to force some states to reverse their election results. Much of Jack Smith’s criminal case against Trump has thereby been voided.

What remains of the January 6 prosecution will now be remanded to a lower court, which will be tasked with determining which charges, if any, can proceed against Trump under the court’s new, unprecedented vision of executive immunity. That trial, if it ever happens, will not take place until long after this November’s elections, and will now likely not be able to address most of Trump’s efforts to assist in either the judicial or violent coup attempts.


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Richard Nixon’s status as a criminal and crook was once summarized by recounting his ominous declaration: “Well, when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” The court has now taken that vulgar absurdity and made it law.

It is difficult to overstate the blow this decision will have to the integrity of our democratic system of government, or the depth of its insult to the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law. In a ruling issued on stark partisan lines, the court’s conservatives elevated the president to a position that no person can hold in a republic: one with a sweeping entitlement to commit criminal acts for the sake of his own vulgar self-interest, without any fear of criminal legal repercussions. Criminal law no longer applies to the president; so long as he occupies the office, he exists in a permanent state of The Purge-like immunity, the ordinary rules of social and civic life suspended for him, able to use the trappings of power to flatter his vanity, reward his friends and punish his enemies as it suits him.

This is one of the most consequential and frightening supreme court decisions of our lives. On the verge of an election in which Trump may well be restored to presidential power, the court has officially declared that he cannot be held accountable for abuses of that power in a criminal court.

In its holding, the court’s majority made a flimsy distinction between the immunity they are granting to presidents for “core powers” and “official” acts – terms whose precise meanings they don’t define – and the criminal liability that Trump and other presidents still have for “unofficial” acts. But these distinctions are likely to collapse if any prosecutor, be it Smith or someone else, actually attempts to use them. That’s because the scope of the presidential office and its powers are so broad that its “core” powers are difficult to tell from its extraneous ones, and “official” and “unofficial” acts by the president are likely to prove ambiguous.

The court also declares, needlessly, that conduct undertaken in the pursuit of “official” powers cannot be used in prosecutions of “unofficial” acts – another protection for presidential conduct that will hamstring future prosecutions. The president, meanwhile, also retains the pardon power – meaning that he is entitled not only to commit crimes, but to secure impunity for his accomplices.

In practice, Trump – and any subsequent president, should we ever get to have one – is now unaccountable to either legislative checks or criminal law. It is a development that has radically changed the nature of the office. The president is now less like a democratically accountable official than like a little emperor, endowed by the court with an all-encompassing right to wield power as he sees fit, much like the way that divine right used to bless the actions of kings. There is virtually nothing that he is not allowed to do.

Preposterously, as if to mock the American public and their historical aspirations to freedom, the court claims that this new state of affairs was mandated by the framers – the very people who broke with their country and fought a war specifically so as to free themselves from this kind of unaccountable executive power.

In her dissent, the justice Sonia Sotomayor listed some of the things that the president can now do without consequence, according to the majority. “Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune,” she writes. “Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Take a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune … The relationship between the president and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the president is now a kind above the law.”

Sotomayor’s dissent is among the most alarmed and mournful pieces of legal writing I have ever read. She concludes it: “With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

There will be people who try to tell you that this ruling is not so bad. They will decry the “bed-wetting caucus”, or smugly declare themselves above “hysteria”. They will point to the majority’s evident concessions, to the president’s supposed liability for “unofficial” conduct – as if this false and pretextual possibility of accountability is anything like the real thing. It isn’t; don’t believe them. This decision is a seismic revision of the constitutional order, issued by a court packed with extremist Republicans who are anticipating a Trump victory in November.

They know, as well as we do, that Trump aspires to usher in an era of corruption and autocracy. Today’s decision is an invitation for him to do just that.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

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