Trump v. United States: All of the Important Summary Points

2 Jul 2024

Trump v. United States Court Filing, retrieved on July 1, 2024, is part of HackerNoon’s Legal PDF Series. You can jump to any part in this filing here. This part is 1 of 21.


A federal grand jury indicted former President Donald J. Trump on four counts for conduct that occurred during his Presidency following the November 2020 election. The indictment alleged that after losing that election, Trump conspired to overturn it by spreading knowingly false claims of election fraud to obstruct the collecting, counting, and certifying of the election results.

Trump moved to dismiss the indictment based on Presidential immunity, arguing that a President has absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions performed within the outer perimeter of his official responsibilities, and that the indictment’s allegations fell within the core of his official duties.

The District Court denied Trump’s motion to dismiss, holding that former Presidents do not possess federal criminal immunity for any acts. The D. C. Circuit affirmed. Both the District Court and the D. C. Circuit declined to decide whether the indicted conduct involved official acts.

Held: Under our constitutional structure of separated powers, the nature of Presidential power entitles a former President to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority. And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts. There is no immunity for unofficial acts. Pp. 5–43.

(a) This case is the first criminal prosecution in our Nation’s history of a former President for actions taken during his Presidency. Determining whether and under what circumstances such a prosecution may proceed requires careful assessment of the scope of Presidential power under the Constitution.

The nature of that power requires that a former President have some immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts during his tenure in office. At least with respect to the President’s exercise of his core constitutional powers, this immunity must be absolute. As for his remaining official actions, he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity. Pp. 5–15.

(1) Article II of the Constitution vests “executive Power” in “a President of the United States of America.” §1, cl. 1. The President has duties of “unrivaled gravity and breadth.” Trump v. Vance, 591 U. S. 786, 800. His authority to act necessarily “stem[s] either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579, 585. In the latter case, the President’s authority is sometimes “conclusive and preclusive.” Id., at 638 (Jackson, J., concurring).

When the President exercises such authority, Congress cannot act on, and courts cannot examine, the President’s actions. It follows that an Act of Congress—either a specific one targeted at the President or a generally applicable one—may not criminalize the President’s actions within his exclusive constitutional power. Neither may the courts adjudicate a criminal prosecution that examines such Presidential actions. The Court thus concludes that the President is absolutely immune from criminal prosecution for conduct within his exclusive sphere of constitutional authority. Pp. 6–9.

(2) Not all of the President’s official acts fall within his “conclusive and preclusive” authority. The reasons that justify the President’s absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for acts within the scope of his exclusive constitutional authority do not extend to conduct in areas where his authority is shared with Congress. To determine the President’s immunity in this context, the Court looks primarily to the Framers’ design of the Presidency within the separation of powers, precedent on Presidential immunity in the civil context, and criminal cases where a President resisted prosecutorial demands for documents. P. 9.

(i) The Framers designed the Presidency to provide for a “vigorous” and “energetic” Executive. The Federalist No. 70, pp. 471–472 (J. Cooke ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton). They vested the President with “supervisory and policy responsibilities of utmost discretion and sensitivity.” Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 731, 750. Appreciating the “unique risks” that arise when the President’s energies are diverted by proceedings that might render him “unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties,” the Court has recognized Presidential immunities and privileges “rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history.” Id., at 749, 751, 752, n. 32.

In Fitzgerald, for instance, the Court concluded that a former President is entitled to absolute immunity from “damages liability for acts within the ‘outer perimeter’ of his official responsibility.” Id., at 756. The Court’s “dominant concern” was to avoid “diversion of the President’s attention during the decision-making process caused by needless worry as to the possibility of damages actions stemming from any particular official decision.” Clinton v. Jones, 520 U. S. 681, 694, n. 19.

By contrast, when prosecutors have sought evidence from the President, the Court has consistently rejected Presidential claims of absolute immunity. During the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr, for instance, Chief Justice Marshall rejected President Thomas Jefferson’s claim that the President could not be subjected to a subpoena.

Marshall simultaneously recognized, however, the existence of a “privilege” to withhold certain “official paper[s].” United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 187, 192 (No. 14,694) (CC Va.). And when a subpoena issued to President Richard Nixon, the Court rejected his claim of “absolute privilege.” United States v. Nixon, 418 U. S. 683, 703. But recognizing “the public interest in candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions in Presidential decision-making,” it held that a “presumptive privilege” protects Presidential communications. Id., at 708.

Because that privilege “relates to the effective discharge of a President’s powers,” id., at 711, the Court deemed it “fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.” Id., at 708. Pp. 9–12.

(ii) Criminally prosecuting a President for official conduct undoubtedly poses a far greater threat of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch than simply seeking evidence in his possession. The danger is greater than what led the Court to recognize absolute Presidential immunity from civil damages liability—that the President would be chilled from taking the “bold and unhesitating action” required of an independent Executive. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 745.

Although the President might be exposed to fewer criminal prosecutions than civil damages suits, the threat of trial, judgment, and imprisonment is a far greater deterrent and plainly more likely to distort Presidential decision-making than the potential payment of civil damages.

The hesitation to execute the duties of his office fearlessly and fairly that might result when a President is making decisions under “a pall of potential prosecution,” McDonnell v. United States, 579 U. S. 550, 575, raises “unique risks to the effective functioning of government,” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 751. But there is also a compelling “public interest in fair and effective law enforcement.” Vance, 591 U. S., at 808.

Taking into account these competing considerations, the Court concludes that the separation of powers principles explicated in the Court’s precedent necessitate at least a presumptive immunity from criminal prosecution for a President’s acts within the outer perimeter of his official responsibility. Such an immunity is required to safeguard the independence and effective functioning of the Executive Branch, and to enable the President to carry out his constitutional duties without undue caution.

At a minimum, the President must be immune from prosecution for an official act unless the Government can show that applying a criminal prohibition to that act would pose no “dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 754. Pp. 12–15.

(3) As for a President’s unofficial acts, there is no immunity. Although Presidential immunity is required for official actions to ensure that the President’s decision-making is not distorted by the threat of future litigation stemming from those actions, that concern does not support immunity for unofficial conduct. Clinton, 520 U. S., at 694, and n. 19. The separation of powers does not bar a prosecution predicated on the President’s unofficial acts. P. 15.

(b) The first step in deciding whether a former President is entitled to immunity from a particular prosecution is to distinguish his official from unofficial actions. In this case, no court thus far has drawn that distinction, in general or with respect to the conduct alleged in particular. It is therefore incumbent upon the Court to be mindful that it is “a court of final review and not first view.” Zivotofsky v. Clinton, 566 U. S. 189, 201. Critical threshold issues in this case are how to differentiate between a President’s official and unofficial actions, and how to do so with respect to the indictment’s extensive and detailed allegations covering a broad range of conduct. The Court offers guidance on those issues. Pp. 16–32.

(1) When the President acts pursuant to “constitutional and statutory authority,” he takes official action to perform the functions of his office. Fitzgerald, 456 U. S., at 757. Determining whether an action is covered by immunity thus begins with assessing the President’s authority to take that action. But the breadth of the President’s “discretionary responsibilities” under the Constitution and laws of the United States frequently makes it “difficult to determine which of [his] innumerable ‘functions’ encompassed a particular action.” Id., at 756.

The immunity the Court has recognized therefore extends to the “outer perimeter” of the President’s official responsibilities, covering actions so long as they are “not manifestly or palpably beyond [his] authority.” Blassingame v. Trump, 87 F. 4th 1, 13 (CADC).

In dividing official from unofficial conduct, courts may not inquire into the President’s motives. Such a “highly intrusive” inquiry would risk exposing even the most obvious instances of official conduct to judicial examination on the mere allegation of improper purpose. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 756. Nor may courts deem an action unofficial merely because it allegedly violates a generally applicable law. Otherwise, Presidents would be subject to trial on “every allegation that an action was unlawful,” depriving immunity of its intended effect. Ibid. Pp. 17–19.

(2) With the above principles in mind, the Court turns to the conduct alleged in the indictment. Certain allegations—such as those involving Trump’s discussions with the Acting Attorney General—are readily categorized in light of the nature of the President’s official relationship to the office held by that individual. Other allegations— such as those involving Trump’s interactions with the Vice President, state officials, and certain private parties, and his comments to the general public—present more difficult questions. Pp. 19–30.

(i) The indictment alleges that as part of their conspiracy to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, Trump and his co-conspirators attempted to leverage the Justice Department’s power and authority to convince certain States to replace their legitimate electors with Trump’s fraudulent slates of electors.

According to the indictment, Trump met with the Acting Attorney General and other senior Justice Department and White House officials to discuss investigating purported election fraud and sending a letter from the Department to those States regarding such fraud. The indictment further alleges that after the Acting Attorney General resisted Trump’s requests, Trump repeatedly threatened to replace him.

The Government does not dispute that the indictment’s allegations regarding the Justice Department involve Trump’s use of official power. The allegations in fact plainly implicate Trump’s “conclusive and preclusive” authority. The Executive Branch has “exclusive authority and absolute discretion” to decide which crimes to investigate and prosecute, including with respect to allegations of election crime. Nixon, 418 U. S., at 693. And the President’s “management of the Executive Branch” requires him to have “unrestricted power to remove the most important of his subordinates”—such as the Attorney General—“in their most important duties.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 750.

The indictment’s allegations that the requested investigations were shams or proposed for an improper purpose do not divest the President of exclusive authority over the investigative and prosecutorial functions of the Justice Department and its officials. Because the President cannot be prosecuted for conduct within his exclusive constitutional authority, Trump is absolutely immune from prosecution for the alleged conduct involving his discussions with Justice Department officials. Pp. 19–21.

(ii) The indictment next alleges that Trump and his co-conspirators “attempted to enlist the Vice President to use his ceremonial role at the January 6 certification proceeding to fraudulently alter the election results.” App. 187, Indictment ¶10(d). In particular, the indictment alleges several conversations in which Trump pressured the Vice President to reject States’ legitimate electoral votes or send them back to state legislatures for review.

Whenever the President and Vice President discuss their official responsibilities, they engage in official conduct. Presiding over the January 6 certification proceeding at which Members of Congress count the electoral votes is a constitutional and statutory duty of the Vice President. Art. II, §1, cl. 3; Amdt. 12; 3 U. S. C. §15. The indictment’s allegations that Trump attempted to pressure the Vice President to take particular acts in connection with his role at the certification proceeding thus involve official conduct, and Trump is at least presumptively immune from prosecution for such conduct.

The question then becomes whether that presumption of immunity is rebutted under the circumstances. It is the Government’s burden to rebut the presumption of immunity. The Court therefore remands to the District Court to assess in the first instance whether a prosecution involving Trump’s alleged attempts to influence the Vice President’s oversight of the certification proceeding would pose any dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch. Pp. 21–24.

(iii) The indictment’s remaining allegations involve Trump’s interactions with persons outside the Executive Branch: state officials, private parties, and the general public. In particular, the indictment alleges that Trump and his co-conspirators attempted to convince certain state officials that election fraud had tainted the popular vote count in their States, and thus electoral votes for Trump’s opponent needed to be changed to electoral votes for Trump.

After Trump failed to convince those officials to alter their state processes, he and his coconspirators allegedly developed and effectuated a plan to submit fraudulent slates of Presidential electors to obstruct the certification proceeding. On Trump’s view, the alleged conduct qualifies as official because it was undertaken to ensure the integrity and proper administration of the federal election.

As the Government sees it, however, Trump can point to no plausible source of authority enabling the President to take such actions. Determining whose characterization may be correct, and with respect to which conduct, requires a fact-specific analysis of the indictment’s extensive and interrelated allegations. The Court accordingly remands to the District Court to determine in the first instance whether Trump’s conduct in this area qualifies as official or unofficial. Pp. 24–28.

(iv) The indictment also contains various allegations regarding Trump’s conduct in connection with the events of January 6 itself. The alleged conduct largely consists of Trump’s communications in the form of Tweets and a public address. The President possesses “extraordinary power to speak to his fellow citizens and on their behalf.” Trump v. Hawaii, 585 U. S. 667, 701. So most of a President’s public communications are likely to fall comfortably within the outer perimeter of his official responsibilities.

There may, however, be contexts in which the President speaks in an unofficial capacity—perhaps as a candidate for office or party leader. To the extent that may be the case, objective analysis of “content, form, and context” will necessarily inform the inquiry. Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U. S. 443, 453. Whether the communications alleged in the indictment involve official conduct may depend on the content and context of each. This necessarily factbound analysis is best performed initially by the District Court. The Court therefore remands to the District Court to determine in the first instance whether this alleged conduct is official or unofficial. Pp. 28–30.

(3) Presidents cannot be indicted based on conduct for which they are immune from prosecution. On remand, the District Court must carefully analyze the indictment’s remaining allegations to determine whether they too involve conduct for which a President must be immune from prosecution. And the parties and the District Court must ensure that sufficient allegations support the indictment’s charges without such conduct. Testimony or private records of the President or his advisers probing such conduct may not be admitted as evidence at trial. Pp. 30–32.

(c) Trump asserts a far broader immunity than the limited one the Court recognizes, contending that the indictment must be dismissed because the Impeachment Judgment Clause requires that impeachment and Senate conviction precede a President’s criminal prosecution. But the text of the Clause does not address whether and on what conduct a President may be prosecuted if he was never impeached and convicted. See Art. I, §3, cl. 7. Historical evidence likewise lends little support to Trump’s position.

The Federalist Papers on which Trump relies concerned the checks available against a sitting President; they did not endorse or even consider whether the Impeachment Judgment Clause immunizes a former President from prosecution. Transforming the political process of impeachment into a necessary step in the enforcement of criminal law finds little support in the text of the Constitution or the structure of the Nation’s Government. Pp. 32–34.

(d) The Government takes a similarly broad view, contending that the President enjoys no immunity from criminal prosecution for any action. On its view, as-applied challenges in the course of the trial suffice to protect Article II interests, and review of a district court’s decisions on such challenges should be deferred until after trial. But questions about whether the President may be held liable for particular actions, consistent with the separation of powers, must be addressed at the outset of a proceeding.

Even if the President were ultimately not found liable for certain official actions, the possibility of an extended proceeding alone may render him “unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 752, n. 32. The Constitution does not tolerate such impediments to “the effective functioning of government.” Id., at 751. Pp. 34–37.

(e) This case poses a question of lasting significance: When may a former President be prosecuted for official acts taken during his Presidency? In answering that question, unlike the political branches and the public at large, the Court cannot afford to fixate exclusively, or even primarily, on present exigencies. Enduring separation of powers principles guide our decision in this case.

The President enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law. But under our system of separated powers, the President may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts. That immunity applies equally to all occupants of the Oval Office. Pp. 41–43.

91 F. 4th 1173, vacated and remanded.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which THOMAS, ALITO, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined in full, and in which BARRETT, J., joined except as to Part III–C. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. BARRETT, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN and JACKSON, JJ., joined. JACKSON, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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