Former President Donald Trump appeared in a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday as an appeals court heard arguments over whether he is immune from prosecution on charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Trump faces charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights.
The former president has argued that he is immune from prosecution because the charges stem from conduct that fell within his official responsibilities as president. Special counsel Jack Smith has said that the president is not entitled to absolute immunity and that, regardless, the actions he’s alleged to have taken fall far outside his official job duties, The Associated Press reported.
Trump’s attorney, John Sauer, argued in court that presidents can only face criminal charges if they are first impeached and convicted by Congress.
“To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora’s box from which this nation may never recover,” he said.
He added, “Could George W. Bush be prosecuted for obstruction of an official proceeding for allegedly giving false information to Congress to induce the nation to go to war in Iraq under false pretenses?”
Appeals court Judge Florence Pan pressed Sauer to define where the line for prosecution would be, asking whether a president could face charges if they ordered SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival.
Sauer said a president could face charges only “if he were impeached and convicted first.”
“My answer is a qualified yes,” he said. “There is a political process that would have to occur.”
Assistant special counsel James Pearce argued that impeachment and criminal prosecution are separate processes and said that Sauer’s argument presented an “extraordinarily frightening future.”
“What kind of world are we living in if, as understood my friend on the other side to say here, a president orders his SEAL Team to assassinate a political rival and resigns, for example, before an impeachment — not a criminal act?” he said.
He argued that “a former president enjoys no immunity from criminal prosecution.”
“Never in our nation’s history until this case has a president claimed that immunity from criminal prosecution extends beyond his time in office,” he said. “The president has a unique constitutional role, but he is not above the law.”
After Tuesday’s hearing, Trump told reporters that he did “absolutely nothing wrong.”
“I’m working for the country and I worked on — very hard on — voter fraud because we have to have free elections. We have to have strong voters, we have to have free elections,” he said.
He added, “I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity. It’s very simple.”
The former president also reiterated his unfounded claims that widespread fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election. Biden won the election with 81.2 million votes to Trump’s 74.2 million.
Allegations of voter fraud have been debunked and rejected by courts across the country. Several officials, including Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, have said they found no evidence to support the claim.
The case heard Tuesday is likely to set the stage for further appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court, which last month declined to fast-track arguments on the question before the appeals court had its say.
The appeals court is expected to quickly issue its decision, although an exact timeline has not been released.
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