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Judge rejects Trump’s claim of immunity in his federal 2020 election prosecution

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is not immune from prosecution in his election interference case in Washington, a federal judge ruled Friday, knocking down the Republican’s bid to derail the case charging him with plotting to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s decision amounts to a sharp rejection to challenges the Trump defense team had raised to the four-count indictment in advance of a trial expected to center on the Republican’s multi-pronged efforts to undo the election won by Democrat Joe Biden.

It tees up a legal fight over the scope of presidential power that could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing in the case, is expected to quickly appeal to fight what his lawyers have characterized as an unsettled legal question.

An attorney for Trump declined to comment Friday evening.

In her ruling, Chutkan said the office of the president “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.

“Former Presidents enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability,” Chutkan wrote. “Defendant may be subject to federal investigation, indictment, prosecution, conviction, and punishment for any criminal acts undertaken while in office.”

Chutkan also rejected Trump’s claims that the indictment violates the former president’s free speech rights. Lawyers for Trump had argued that he was within his First Amendment rights to challenge the outcome of the election and to allege that it had been tainted by fraud, and they accused prosecutors of attempting to criminalize political speech and political advocacy.

But Chutkan said “it is well established that the First Amendment does not protect speech that is used as an instrument of a crime.”

“Defendant is not being prosecuted simply for making false statements … but rather for knowingly making false statements in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy and obstructing the electoral process,” she wrote.

Her ruling comes the same day the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that lawsuits accusing Trump of inciting the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, can move forward.

The appeals court in that case turned away Trump’s sweeping claims that presidential immunity shields him from liability in the lawsuits brought by Democratic lawmakers and police officers. But the three-judge panel said the 2024 Republican presidential primary front-runner can continue to fight, as the cases proceed, to try to prove that his actions were taken in his official capacity as president.

Trump’s legal team had argued that the criminal case, which is scheduled to go to trial in March, should be dismissed because the 2024 Republican presidential primary front-runner is shielded from prosecution for actions he took while fulfilling his duties as president. They assert that the actions detailed in the indictment — including pressing state officials on the administration of elections — cut to the core of Trump’s responsibilities as commander in chief.

The Supreme Court has held that presidents are immune from civil liability for actions related to their official duties, but the justices have never grappled with the question of whether that immunity extends to criminal prosecution.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team has said there is nothing in the Constitution, or in court precedent, to support the idea that a former president cannot be prosecuted for criminal conduct committed while in the White House.

“The defendant is not above the law. He is subject to the federal criminal laws like more than 330 million other Americans, including Members of Congress, federal judges, and everyday citizens,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.

It’s one of four criminal cases Trump is facing while he seeks to reclaim the White House in 2024. Smith has separately charged Trump in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate after he left the White House. Trump is also charged in Georgia with conspiring to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden. And he faces charges in New York related to hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign.

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