Trump's immunity case: Supreme Court appears skeptical of former president's defense

The Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday on whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case that is charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

It's a potentially historic ruling about the scope of presidential power. Trump is the first ex-president to face criminal charges, making his appeal the first time in the country’s history that the Supreme Court has had to weigh in on this issue.

Though Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, there’s no bar against charging a former one.

RELATED: A guide to Trump’s court cases

What happened in court?

In nearly three hours of testimony and questions, Chief Justice John Roberts was among at least five members who appeared likely to reject the claim of absolute immunity that would stop special counsel Jack Smith's prosecution of Trump, the Associated Press noted.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, two of Trump's three high court appointees, suggested that former presidents might have some immunity and that in this case, lower courts might have to sort out whether that applied to Trump. That could further delay a trial.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the other Trump appointee, seemed less open to arguments advanced by Trump lawyer D. John Sauer.

The justices were keenly aware that their decision on whether former commanders in chief have immunity would have huge implications not just for this case, but also far beyond this prosecution.

Justice Gorsuch told special counsel team lawyer Michael Dreeben they are "writing a rule for the ages." Kavanaugh concurred, adding: "This case has huge implications for the presidency, for the future of the presidency, for the future of the country."

What is Trump charged with? 

trump speaks before jan 6 riots

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The former president was charged in August 2023 by Special Counsel Smith with conspiring to overturn the results of his election loss to President Joe Biden in the run-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. 

His charges include four counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to prevent others from carrying out their constitutional rights. 

Why is the Supreme Court involved? 

The Supreme Court is now the third set of judges to look at the question in the last six months.

Trump’s lawyers last October asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, the trial judge overseeing the case, to dismiss the indictment on presidential immunity grounds.

The judge rejected Trump’s claims of absolute immunity, saying in December 2023 that the office of the presidency does not confer a "lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass."

An appeals court this past February held the same standard, with a three-judge panel saying that for the purposes of this case, "former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant."

Trump appealed to the high court, which after several weeks, announced that it would consider "whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office."

When will Trump’s case go to trial if SCOTUS rejects his request for immunity? 

The timing of the Supreme Court’s decision could be as important as the outcome. Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, has been pushing to delay the trial until after the November election, and the later the justices issue their decision, the more likely he is to succeed.

If the justices rule against Trump and in favor of the government, the case would be returned to Chutkan.

Any trial would still be several months away, in part because of Chutkan’s decision last December to effectively freeze the case pending the outcome of Trump’s appeal. She’s also committed to giving prosecutors and defense lawyers time to get ready for trial if the case returns to her court.

What if Trump wins the election? 

If Trump officially secures the GOP nomination and defeats Biden in November, he could potentially try to order a new attorney general to dismiss the federal cases against him, or he could even seek a pardon for himself.

Smith’s team didn’t mention the election in its filing urging the Supreme Court to reject Trump’s effort to further delay the case. But prosecutors noted that the case has "unique national importance," adding that "delay in the resolution of these charges threatens to frustrate the public interest in a speedy and fair verdict."

Trump, meanwhile, has accused Smith of trying to rush the case to trial for political reasons.

His lawyers told the Supreme Court in their filing that holding the trial "at the height of election season will radically disrupt Trump’s ability to campaign against Biden — which appears to be the whole point of the Special Counsel’s persistent demands for expedition."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.