What the Supreme Court’s immunity decision means for Trump

The justice system that has dealt Donald J. Trump a heavy blow over the past six months has just delivered one of the most important pieces of good news he’s received since the start of his campaign.

The U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative supermajority was solidified by Trump’s nominations, ruled Monday that the former president has partial immunity from prosecution as he tries to fend off an indictment by special counsel Jack Smith related to Trump’s efforts to thwart the transition of power after the 2020 election.

The broad thrust of the ruling — that presidents would be entitled to substantial protections for official acts — had been expected for months by political and judicial observers. Still, Trump trumpeted it as a victory.

“Great victory for our Constitution and democracy. Proud to be an American!” Trump wrote in all caps on Truth Social.

The decision means a trial in the case will almost certainly be delayed until after the November election. And if Trump wins, the Justice Department will almost certainly drop the case, people close to Trump said.

For President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is seeking a second term, the ruling was not the outcome that would have been most favorable in his efforts to portray Trump as dangerous; that would have been an affirmation of the charges. Biden’s team immediately highlighted the ruling as evidence of the existential threat the sitting president poses to the country, according to his predecessor and potential successor.

A statement attributed to a senior Biden campaign adviser said: “Today’s ruling does not change the facts, so let’s be very clear about what happened on January 6th: Donald Trump snapped after losing the 2020 election and encouraged a mob to ignore the results of a free and fair election. Trump is already running for president as a convicted felon for the exact same reason he sat by as the mob violently attacked the Capitol: He believes he is above the law and is willing to do anything to gain and keep power for himself.”

Republicans were quick to point to the decision as another example of the kind of luck — partly of his own making, as with the Supreme Court he shaped — that Trump has often experienced when he stretches systems as far as they can go, and sometimes even further than they were intended.

When Trump faced impeachment for the events of January 6, 2021, Republicans one after another explained why he had not voted to convict him in the Senate by arguing that the criminal justice system was the best place to hold him accountable. Those same Republicans are now backing Trump for a second term, one in which the former president has promised a maximalist approach to executive power, and one that would come after the Supreme Court provided a sweeping definition of what constitutes official acts immune from prosecution.

In an interview with the Fox News website, Trump claimed he had been “bullied” for “years” by Democrats — including former President Barack Obama and Biden.

“And now the courts have spoken,” Trump said, adding later: “Now I’m free to campaign just like anybody else. We’re ahead in every poll — by a wide margin — and we’re going to make America great again.”

Trump has always campaigned the way he wanted: a mix of daytime golf outings and a few rallies a month, interspersed with a handful of court appearances in 2023 and early 2024. Trump seemed to relish those moments, and the media spectacle that followed.

But by April, when the trial began in Manhattan that will now almost certainly be the only criminal trial he will face before Election Day, the joy had all but evaporated.

Trump was convicted in a six-week trial of 34 felonies, including falsifying corporate records, which prosecutors say he did to cover up a hush-money payment to a porn star during the 2016 campaign.

He is expected to be sentenced in that case on July 11, and the Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to delay that. But while some in Trump’s team worry about the possibility, few observers believe Judge Juan M. Merchan will force Trump to remain behind bars or under house arrest for the duration of the presidential race.

Mr. Trump has not gained anything from being a convicted felon. But politically, the conviction has paid off in the short term for his candidacy. He has raised an astonishing amount of money, while a broad spectrum of Republicans suddenly called for prosecution of Democrats retaliation.

While the Supreme Court took an initial step toward outlining immunity, the timing of what happens next is unclear. The court returned the case to trial judge Tanya Chutkan, who must now decide whether to hold a miniature trial to determine which allegations in the special counsel’s indictment constitute official acts and therefore potentially immune from prosecution under the Supreme Court’s decision Monday.

Such proceedings, depending on the volume of cases Judge Chutkan hears, could prove problematic in their details for Mr. Trump. The facts of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob — and Mr. Trump’s public lies about winning the 2020 election in the weeks after the election — are certainly not helpful to Mr. Trump with undecided voters.

For that reason, Trump’s allies were relieved that the first questions in Biden’s debate last week were not about the attack on the Capitol, which Trump still defends, but about the economy.

A mini-trial could draw attention to what happened that day in Washington. But Trump’s legal team has proven expert at delaying trouble, and it may not happen before the election. Even if it does, an actual trial of Trump’s actions to stay in power is a long way off.

Still, the hope for such a mini-trial may be the best option for Democrats seeking to draw attention to Trump’s conduct that is undermining the election.

“When Trump attempted to overturn the results of an election he lost in 2020, it was not the official act of a president,” Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “It was the act of a despotic narcissist who sought to overthrow our democracy to stay in power, and he must be held accountable for his actions.”

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