A federal appeals court on Tuesday unequivocally rejected former President Donald Trump’s absurd claim that he possesses total immunity to the federal election interference case that special counsel Jack Smith is prosecuting against him. “We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results,” the three-judge appeals panel wrote in its unanimous ruling.
Trump predictably lashed out: “If immunity is not granted to a President, every future President who leaves office will be immediately indicted by the opposing party,” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement. “Without complete immunity, a President of the United States would not be able to properly function!” The pugilistic tone shows that Tuesday’s defeat only sets up the next attempted delay at the Supreme Court, potentially extending his hopes of winning in November without having gone to trial and, thus, returning to the safety of the White House.
In the meantime, it’s easy to become numb to these bombastic fits from Team Trump as just part of his shtick. Any rebuff, from a snide remark to a legal defeat, provokes a combination of projection and threats of reprisal. It’s all in keeping with the narrative he’s crafted that he’s a “counterpuncher” who strikes only when attacked. In this case, he is selling the delusion that the rule of law itself attacked him. But the hyperbolic rhetoric doesn’t detract from his clear intent to prosecute his enemies in revenge if he wins office again.
Trump has insisted that it’s his political opponents, chiefly President Joe Biden, who are themselves “criminal” and “treasonous.” For just one example, he has tried to push the “Biden Crime Family” narrative as though his own family hasn’t profited from his presidency. But he has also said similar things about something as clearly political as Biden’s immigration policies. “Crooked Joe will not get away with these crimes,” Trump said at a rally in Las Vegas last month. “With your vote, he will be judged and convicted by the American people of this atrocity he’s done.”
The fig leaf over the threats Trump has issued is his recurring defense that he’s reacting to meritless outside attacks for simply doing his job. “Deranged Jack Smith’s prosecution of President Trump for his Presidential, official acts is unconstitutional under the doctrine of Presidential Immunity and the Separation of Powers,” Cheung, his campaign spokesperson, said in Tuesday’s statement. The ruling from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit itself made it clear that none of his supposed fears for the future of the country are valid. “It would be a striking paradox 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 impunity,” the ruling continued.
The courts “cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter,” the judges added, finding that “there is no functional justification for immunizing former Presidents from federal prosecution in general or for immunizing former President Trump from the specific charges” that a federal grand jury returned in its indictment last year.
Trump still baselessly claimed that Smith’s “prosecuting a President for official acts violates the Constitution and threatens the bedrock of our Republic” even after the court had utterly rejected that argument. But, as ever, his statements aren’t aimed at convincing the courts, or even a jury, should his case finally come to trial. They are meant to signal to his supporters that he’s the aggrieved party, despite the mountain of evidence that he violated the law.
In the cult of personality he leads, Trump is an avatar to his followers. “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” he told attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” He has accordingly insisted that the prosecution he faces is truly persecution and that a similar fate could befall those who follow him. Under this logic, anyone who comes at him must be against his followers, who have wrapped up their embrace of him within their own identities.
But his profession that everyone who stands against him is the real criminal didn’t spring up from nowhere. The Republican Party more broadly has been laying the groundwork for years to not trust “career politicians,” who, in its telling, are all wasteful, lying crooks, unlike conservative outsiders. Trump is the end result of this trend, a onetime “outsider” who has conquered the mainstream establishment and has the added bonus of getting to ironically claim himself as the exception that proves the rule that politicians aren’t to be trusted.
Making this all the more dangerous is the rush from other elected Republicans to join him in this rhetoric, despite their knowing that the things he says are based on disinformation and lies. These hangers-on clearly hope that the sin of spending their days in Washington is washed away through a purification by proximity. If pretending that he’s innocent is what is needed to avoid any repercussions, so be it. But there’s no denying that Trump would use a second term in office to launch a funhouse mirror campaign against his enemies, one in which facts and laws fall by the wayside in favor of retribution and personal vendettas. In Trump’s bizarro world, his alleged crimes were nothing but politics — but any acts of politics in opposition to him are inherently criminal.