1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US Supreme Court hears arguments on Trump immunity plea

April 25, 2024

Donald Trump is hoping that the conservative-majority top court will save him from at least one of his legal woes. Meanwhile, a separate case over hush money charges is keeping him occupied in New York.

File picture of a woman under a purple umbrella walking past the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is set to rule on whether Donald Trump, and by extension any president, is immune from criminal prosecution for acts carried out while in officeImage: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo/picture alliance

The top US court heard arguments on Thursday from former President Donald Trump's legal team that he should be given immunity from criminal prosecution for any actions taken during his time in office.

However, Trump will not be present at the Supreme Court hearing, as he had hoped, due to another separate trial that he is facing in Manhattan. 

Among his maze of legal problems, the top court's decision could have the biggest impact on Trump's third run for the White House later this year — as well as setting a precedent for future US presidents.

Why is Trump seeking immunity?

The federal case before the Supreme Court pertains to charges that the former president conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which ended with thousands of his supporters storming the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 while lawmakers met to certify President Joe Biden's victory.

Lower courts have rejected Trump's claims that he is immune from criminal prosecution because he was still president at the time.

The ruling of the nine leading justices — three of whom were appointed by Trump — could be decisive in the outcome of the former president's main legal challenges.

However, if the Supreme Court justices do agree with the lower courts on the question of presidential immunity, their ruling may be too late for the trial to be held before the November elections.

Even if the trial goes ahead on time and Trump is convicted, some legal scholars say he would have the ability to pardon himself, if he wins the November election.

What do voters see in Trump?

What was said during the arguments?

According to the Washington Post, during three hours of oral arguments, discussion centered on "which allegations in the indictment involve potentially official acts."

Trump's lawyers have argued that former presidents are entitled to absolute immunity for their official acts. 

Several US media outlets reported that judges seemed skeptical of Trump's absolute immunity claims, but that concerns remain over reasoning adopted by the federal appeals court that ruled against Trump. 

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, said he had "concerns" with the lower court ruling.

"As I read it, it says simply, 'a former president can be prosecuted because he's being prosecuted,'" Roberts said.

"Why shouldn't we either send [the case] back to the Court of Appeals or issue an opinion making clear that that's not the law?"

Sending the case back for review to a lower court would delay any conspiracy trial until after election day in November. The judges' decision whether to allow the trial to go forward without further delay is expected by the end of June. 

Michael Dreeben, representing Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the election conspiracy charges against Trump, said that executive immunity would allow a president to commit "bribery, treason sedition and murder."

In the case of Trump, this would amount to using fraud to overturn election results, he added. 

Trump stuck in New York

The Supreme Court's decision will, however, not impact the New York trial as this revolves around 34 state felony charges related to paying hush money in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to suppress potentially embarrassing stories from emerging.

As a state case, Trump would also not be able to pardon himself if elected president. The charges carry a maximum sentence of four years in prison, but it is not clear the judge would seek jail time.

The 77-year-old Republican presidential hopeful had asked for his presence not be required at Thursday's criminal trial in order so he could sit in on the Supreme Court hearing, but Judge Juan Merchan denied the request.

"Arguing before the Supreme Court is a big deal, and I can certainly appreciate why your client would want to be there, but a trial in New York Supreme Court is also a big deal," Merchan said last week.

Hush-money trial against Trump begins

sms,ab/wmr (AP, AFP)