By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey
August 2, 2023, in the Wall Street Journal
The latest indictment of Donald Trump takes the courts and the country into uncharted territory. Special counsel Jack Smith and a District of Columbia grand jury accuse Mr. Trump of conspiring to steal the 2020 presidential election and charge him, among other things, with defrauding the U.S. But Mr. Trump’s status as president when the alleged crimes took place raises questions about whether he can be successfully prosecuted—and, if he is, troubling implications for future presidents.
The president is immune from civil and criminal liability for actions taken in the execution of the office. That immunity is absolute, like the immunity accorded to judges and prosecutors. Courts have allowed only that the president may be subject to subpoena in certain circumstances that don’t impose great burdens on his ability to function as chief executive.
Former presidents can be held liable for personal actions while in office, but only those that fall beyond “the outer perimeter of his official responsibility.” In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the Supreme Court held that Richard Nixon was immune from a civil damages action in which a former federal employee claimed he was illegally fired as punishment for revealing Pentagon cost overruns. The justices reasoned that absolute immunity for official acts was “a functionally mandated incident of the President’s unique office,” since “personal vulnerability” to suit could warp a president’s decision-making and deter him from performing his duties “fearlessly and impartially.” That’s obviously even truer of criminal liability, so the court can be expected to extend presidential immunity accordingly. (An exception is offenses for which a former president has been impeached and convicted, the prosecution of which the Constitution explicitly authorizes.)
The critical legal question, then, is whether Mr. Trump’s alleged offenses fall within the “outer perimeter” of his responsibilities as president. The courts have only started to grapple with this issue. In Thompson v. Trump (2022), Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that Mr. Trump’s contacts with local election officials after the 2020 election weren’t official acts. That case, which involved a civil action against Mr. Trump by plaintiffs alleging injuries suffered during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots, could be reversed by the D.C. Circuit or the Supreme Court.
Whatever the higher courts make of Judge Mehta’s conclusion, he made a key analytical error in reaching it. He fell into the trap of relying on Mr. Trump’s motivation, in the guise of his “purpose,” which was to preserve his “incumbency.” But the justices in Nixon made clear that the determination of whether a president was acting in his official capacity couldn’t be based on either motivation or the legality of his actions, as that would “subject the President to trial on virtually every allegation that an action was unlawful, or was taken for a forbidden purpose.” The court also noted that the president’s discretionary authority under the Constitution is so broad that “it would be difficult to determine which of the President’s innumerable ‘functions’ encompassed a particular action.”
Mr. Smith fell into the same trap. His focus vis-à-vis Mr. Trump is very much on whether he honestly believed the election had been stolen from him. The proper question is whether the actions he allegedly took after the 2020 election fall objectively within “the outer perimeter of his official responsibility.”
The strongest argument that they don’t is that supervision of state election officials, the selection of presidential electors, and the vice president’s role in counting those votes aren’t ordinarily presidential responsibilities. But it isn’t so clear that, in a case where voting irregularities were reported in the media from numerous critical states—even if incorrectly—the president has no official role in investigating and addressing those claims.
The selection of presidential electors is in part a matter of federal law. The Constitution vests this task in the state legislatures under the Electors Clause, which governs presidential elections. Because the states had no such authority before the Constitution, this critical power is substantially federal in character.
In Moore v. Harper (2023), the Supreme Court recognized that a parallel constitutional provision, the Elections Clause—which divides authority for setting the rules of congressional elections between the state legislatures and Congress—was sufficiently federal in nature to justify the high court’s review of state court decisions involving these rules, even though it ordinarily has no authority to scrutinize a state court’s interpretation of state laws.
It was Mr. Trump’s constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” He had no power to direct state officials’ actions, but urging them to ensure the integrity of federal elections could fall within the outer bounds of his responsibility. He has no authority to direct the vice president’s discharge of his constitutional duties as Senate president, but his exhorting or pleading with the vice president to take certain actions is arguably within the bounds of his authority. Presidents do it routinely when the vice president is called on to cast a deciding Senate vote.
Judge Mehta adopted an unduly crabbed legal test for what constitutes an official presidential action. He asserted that “a sitting President has no expressly identified duty to faithfully execute the laws surrounding the Certification of the Electoral College.” But the Take Care Clause, which is a key component of presidential duties, is broadly framed to include ensuring compliance with all federal laws, including the Constitution. Moreover, the clause is only a subset of the power conveyed to the president by the Vesting Clause, which provides that the “executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.”
Pursuant to that broad authority, a president may communicate with, cajole and even browbeat officials over whom he has no supervisory authority, urging them to pursue policies that he believes are in the national interest. Many presidents take such actions; both Mr. Trump and President Biden, for instance, pressed states to follow federal Covid-19 recommendations. Wise or not, those were undoubtedly official actions.
The indictment of Mr. Trump means that the Supreme Court will almost certainly be called on to determine the scope of a former president’s immunity and whether Mr. Trump’s actions after the 2020 election fell within the outer reaches of his official responsibilities.
Mr. Trump’s conduct may be hard to defend, but the stakes here are far greater than his fate. One can easily envision a future president using military force, sending weapons to another country, engaging in a major diplomatic endeavor or authorizing a prosecution based on what opponents believe—perhaps rightly—are self-serving lies. Under Mr. Smith’s theory, he could be charged with defrauding the United States.
The specter of such prosecutions would cripple the ability of all future presidents to perform their constitutional responsibilities vigorously and fearlessly. That’s why we have presidential immunity in the first place.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.