Does Donald Trump have presidential immunity? 

New Orleans — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this month about presidential immunity and whether former President Donald Trump can be tried on charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The high court’s decision will determine how some of the presumptive GOP nominee’s legal cases advance in an election year where he is facing 91 felony charges across four trials. They include the willful retention of national defense information in violation of the Espionage Act.

“Donald Trump is trying to show that a U.S. president is immune from criminal prosecution while acting in an official capacity,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told VOA.

“But I think, at the heart of this matter, is just how broadly Trump and his lawyers define ‘official capacity,’” Bullock explained.

“They are defining it very broadly at the moment. Trump says a president should be completely immune while president, but the three-judge circuit panel that ruled against him posed the question: ‘Well, what if the president hired a hitman to take out one of their rivals? Is that in an official capacity, and are they immune from prosecution then, as well?’ I think we’d all say, of course not!”

Many Republicans continue to back Trump

This month’s case before the Supreme Court, which includes three Trump appointees, involves federal charges that Trump attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election by spreading false information about voter fraud and by pressing Vice President Mike Pence to reject legitimate results when they were presented to Congress.

That congressional certification of electoral votes on January 6, 2021, was disrupted by Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol. For that attack, Trump is facing a charge of obstructing an official proceeding.

The former president argues he was acting in an official capacity at the time, and therefore cannot be charged. In its filing to the Supreme Court, Trump’s team wrote, “The president cannot function, and the presidency itself cannot retain its vital independence, if the president faces criminal prosecution for official acts once he leaves office.”

“A denial of criminal immunity would incapacitate every future president with de facto blackmail and extortion while in office,” the filing continues, “and condemn him to years of post-office trauma at the hands of political opponents.”

A Politico Magazine/Ipsos poll last month found that 70% of voters — including nearly half of Republicans — reject Trump’s argument that presidents should be immune from prosecution for crimes committed while in office.

Republican voter Jeff Williams from Valparaiso, Indiana, believes charges against Trump show he is being unfairly targeted by Democrats.

“It looks to me like these are all cases of Democrat-affiliated prosecutors in Democratic-leaning districts hoping for Democratic-slanted juries that will vote against Trump simply because they don’t like him,” Williams told VOA.

“Do I think a president should have total immunity from the law? No way,” Williams said. “But have I seen any evidence that suggests President Trump is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Absolutely not. This feels like a witch hunt.”

“Half of the country is going to have to justify voting for a criminal this year!”

“I can’t believe this is the situation we find ourselves in,” said Democratic voter Deborah Theobald of Woodstock, Georgia. “Half of the country is going to have to justify voting for a criminal this year!”

Fifty-five percent of Americans responding to a Reuters/Ipsos poll say they would not vote for Donald Trump if he was convicted of a felony by a jury, while 58% said they would not cast their ballot for the former president if he was currently serving time in prison.

“If a person has committed a crime while in office, and even a serious crime before office, then I think they should be prosecuted just as any other American would be,” said Rebecca Urrutia, a Connecticut mother who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

“Anyone who says that a president should have immunity from a prosecuted crime doesn’t stand for the Constitution or our country,” she said. “The president is a citizen and servant of our country, not a king or emperor, and if you break the law, I can’t vote for you.”

Impacting the coming election

It’s a turning point for the U.S. legal system and a pivotal political moment for Trump, says Robert Collins, a Dillard University professor of urban studies and public policy.

“Polling has shown that whether he is convicted or not has huge implications for the 2024 presidential election,” Collins told VOA. “But, outside of how these cases are ruled, the longer they go on, the more likely Trump avoids a guilty ruling in advance of Election Day.”

Independent voters are a pivotal group in swing states, with more than one-third telling a Politico Magazine/Ipsos poll that they are less likely to support Trump if he is convicted.

“But if a conviction doesn’t come in time for the election — or too close to the election for voters to change their mind — then Republican voters might stick with him,” Collins said. “And, if he wins the election, and is convicted afterwards, then he’ll make the case that as the sitting president, he’s able to pardon himself. It’s a dangerous situation.”

Melbourne, Florida voter Jillian Dani backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 and says the results of his criminal cases will have a big impact on how she votes in November.

“On one hand, I wouldn’t vote for a felon,” Dani told VOA. “But on the other hand, I’m worried this is a witch hunt against someone the Democratic Party fears. I believe Clinton and Biden were criminals, too, but they weren’t convicted. If Trump isn’t convicted either, then why should he be treated differently?”

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