By Andrew Goudsward
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors on Saturday urged a federal appeals court to reject former President Donald Trump’s claim that he cannot face criminal charges for seeking to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election.
Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is overseeing the prosecution, argued in a court filing that nothing in the U.S. Constitution or American legal tradition supports giving former presidents “absolute immunity” from criminal charges for action taken while in office.
Smith said creating such a legal shield would place presidents above the law.
Trump has claimed that the presidency is “cloaked with absolute immunity” from prosecution, Smith said. “He is wrong.”
Smith argued that the separation of powers mandated by the constitution and legal precedent make clear that a former president can be charged for crimes he committed while in the White House “including, most critically here, illegal acts to remain in power despite losing an election.”
Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, is appealing a lower court ruling denying his bid to dismiss the election charges based on his claim of immunity. His lawyers argued in a Dec. 23 filing that allowing Trump to be charged for conduct related to his official responsibilities would undermine the presidency.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is scheduled to hold arguments on the matter on Jan. 9.
Trump, president from 2017-2021, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he defrauded the United States, obstructed Congress and violated the civil rights of voters through schemes to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden. The case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces and one of two that relate to his alleged efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
Trump, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, has accused prosecutors of a politically motivated effort to damage his campaign for the Nov. 5, 2024 election. State-by-state contests to select a nominee begin on Jan. 15.
The timing of the court’s decision is seen as crucial to whether Trump will stand trial beginning in March as scheduled. Progress in the case has been halted while the immunity appeal remains pending.
Smith earlier this month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to bypass the lower appeals court and immediately decide the issue, in an attempt to stave off Trump’s attempt at delay.
The Supreme Court denied the request, leaving the issue for now with the D.C. Circuit court.
(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Editing by Howard Goller and Diane Craft)