Trump attorney: Presidents can have rivals assassinated and still claim immunity

Trump attorney: Presidents can have rivals assassinated and still claim immunity

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

By Keya Vakil

January 9, 2024

Trump has been charged for his plot to overturn the 2020 election, but his attorney argued Tuesday that presidents are immune from criminal prosecution unless they’re impeached and removed from office—even if they ordered a political assassination.

Former President Donald Trump’s lawyer argued Tuesday that a US president could have a political rival assassinated by SEAL Team Six and still avoid criminal prosecution due to presidential immunity. 

Attorney John Sauer made the argument during a hearing at a federal appeals court, claiming that a president could only be criminally prosecuted if they’ve been impeached and removed from office by Congress. 

Sauer’s comments came after Judge Florence Pan asked him a hypothetical question: “Could a president who ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival, and is not impeached, would he be subject to criminal prosecution?”

“If he were impeached and convicted first,” Sauer responded. “There is a political process that would have to occur.”

Sauer argued that because Trump wasn’t impeached and removed from office, he should be protected from criminal prosecution over his plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election and any criminal actions connected to it.  

Trump was indicted last year and charged with conspiring to defraud the United States for his attempts to cling to power after his loss to Joe Biden. But Sauer argued Tuesday that Trump is immune from the charges in the case because they arose from actions he took as president. 

The court is hearing an appeal in the election interference case after the trial judge rejected the same arguments about Trump being covered by presidential immunity. 

Assistant special counsel James Pearce asked the panels of judges to join the trial judge in rejecting the argument. “Never in our nation’s history until this case has a president claimed that immunity from criminal prosecution extends beyond his time in office,” he told the court.

Pearce also pointed out that under Sauer’s argument, a president could have the military assassinate an opponent and avoid criminal punishment by resigning before they could be impeached. 

“That is an extraordinarily frightening future,” Pearce said. 

All three judges appeared skeptical of Sauer’s argument, which has become central to Trump’s defense. The case is likely to reach the US Supreme Court and its outcome is likely to decide if and when Trump goes on trial in the case. 

Trump and his legal team have made clear that they want to delay the trial, currently set to start in March, until after the November presidential election. 

Trump is the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and has held an enormous lead over his opponents for the duration of the primary campaign. If he were to win the presidency again, Trump could try to have the charges against him dropped or attempt to pardon himself. 

Sauer’s claims Tuesday that a president could order an assassination and avoid criminal punishment came just one day after Mediaite reported they’d obtained audio of Trump’s close ally Roger Stone telling an associate that one of two Democratic congressmen—Reps. Eric Swalwell or Jerry Nadler—had “to die”  before the 2020 election.

“It’s time to do it,” Stone allegedly told his associate, Sal Greco, at a restaurant in Florida. “Let’s go find Swalwell. It’s time to do it. Then we’ll see how brave the rest of them are. It’s time to do it. It’s either Nadler or Swalwell has to die before the election. They need to get the message. Let’s go find Swalwell and get this over with. I’m just not putting up with this shit anymore.”

Stone denied making the comments and said they were generated by artificial intelligence, but Greco did not deny the comments. In a text to Mediaite, he wrote: “I don’t think your reader is interested in ancient political fodder.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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