Under the 14th Amendment, is Donald Trump, architect of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, eligible to run for president again? That weighty question is now before the Supreme Court.
We don’t know what the court will do. But we know what they should do: Read the Constitution, then follow the advice of conservative former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig: “The former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and the resulting attack on the U.S. Capitol, place him squarely within the ambit of the disqualification clause, and he is therefore ineligible to serve as president ever again.”
But no matter what the court decides, remember this: Donald Trump has already lost the main event: his claim of immunity.
Sometimes Hollywood sums it up best. In the classic 1982 film “The Verdict,” Paul Newman, playing attorney Frank Galvin, steps outside the courtroom and remarks: “There are no other cases. This is the case.”
The same must be said of Trump’s presidential immunity case. This is the acid test. The core test. The crucial test that is more important than all others. Because it addresses the fundamental building block of the United States. What was drilled into us as school children. And what all of us, liberal or conservative, fervently believed (until Donald Trump came along): That no man or woman is above the law.
The Orange King challenged that idea on the flimsiest of legal grounds. A president and former president must be above the law, he insisted. He must be king. Otherwise, he could not do his job — out of fear that his successor would sue him over some action he disagreed with. Trump’s attorneys even argued a president could send a Navy Seal team to assassinate his political opponent and still not be held accountable.
That outrageous demand for “total immunity” was first soundly rejected last December by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who most memorably noted that, among privileges enjoyed by a president of the United States, a lifetime “get-out-of-jail-free pass” was not of them. Of course, ever seeking to delay his federal trial until after the election, Trump appealed her decision. And this week he got his answer.
In the strongest possible language, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Judge Chutkan’s ruling. Do yourself a favor. Read their entire 57-page decision. It’ll make you believe in America again.
In the strongest language, the court didn’t just deny Trump’s ridiculous argument for immunity, they smashed it to bits. “It would be a striking paradox,” they wrote, “if the President, who alone is vested with the constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ were the sole officer capable of defying those laws with immunity.”
With one simple sentence, they knocked Donald Trump off his golden, Mar-a-Lago throne: “For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become Citizen Trump.” In case there was still any doubt, they added: “Any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution.” You couldn’t say it more clearly than that.
But the court not only smashed Trump’s immunity argument, they also basically ordered him to stop playing games. Knowing he would also try to drag out this adverse ruling, they only gave him until next week, Feb. 12, to appeal their decision to the Supreme Court. Which is hugely significant.
Who knows what happens next? We know Trump will appeal to the Supreme Court. It’s such an absurd claim, most legal experts doubt the Supreme Court will even take the case. But in the unlikely case that they do, it’s hard to imagine that even Clarence Thomas could agree with Donald Trump that, in the United States, being president is the same as being king. Think about it. By ruling that Trump’s above the law, the Supreme Court would in effect be declaring that the court itself is irrelevant. Ain’t going to happen.
Which means that “Citizen Trump” is going to be spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C., this year, not on the campaign trail, but cooling his heels in a federal courtroom, charged with inciting an insurrection against the government. He will enjoy no more immunity than you or I would if charged with a federal crime.
Donald Trump claimed “L’Etat, c’est moi” (I myself am the nation). The Appeals Court said this week: “No, Donny Boy, you’re just a chump, like all the rest of us.”
Bill Press’ column is syndicated by Tribune Content Agency. His email address is [email protected].