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Judges appear doubtful about Trump's immunity claim in election interference case

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump made his case to appeals court judges in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. Facing a panel of skeptical judges, lawyer John Sauer argued Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for anything he did while in office, even trying to overturn his election defeat, unless Congress impeached and convicted him first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN SAUER: To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora's box from which this nation may never recover.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson watched the arguments, and she's on the line with us now to talk more about them. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the former president made some sweeping claims about presidential power. How did the judges at the appeals court seem to respond to that?

JOHNSON: All three judges seem really doubtful about siding with Trump on that key question of blanket immunity. One judge, Florence Pan, posed a tough question for Trump's lawyer. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLORENCE PAN: In your view, could a president sell pardons or sell military secrets? Those are official acts. Could a president order SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors said that outcome would be truly scary. But another judge, Karen Henderson, asked if the court sided with the Justice Department, would that open the floodgates for more prosecutions of presidents in the future? A special counsel lawyer said no way, that Donald Trump and his behavior have been unique in American history. Remember; Trump is fighting 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions while leading the Republican race for the presidency in 2024.

MARTIN: And to that end, we're only days away from the Iowa caucuses. More voters are heading to the polls in other states very soon. Will we have a ruling by this D.C. appeals court soon?

JOHNSON: The court didn't give any timetable for its decision, but these judges know the clock is running. If he loses here, Trump may appeal to the full D.C. circuit court and then onto the Supreme Court. This trial was supposed to start March 4. Right now, it's on hold. And if the judges take a long time to decide or Trump is able to drag out more appeals, there may be no trial before the election. The special counsel knows that, too, so he's asked the judges to move quickly and give Trump a tight deadline for any more appeals. If Trump wins the presidency, he could direct his Justice Department to dismiss this case in D.C. and another one in Florida, as well.

MARTIN: And Donald Trump did appear at the courthouse. This was the first time since his arraignment last August. Carrie, would you just describe his demeanor? Would you just tell us, did he say or do anything while he was there?

JOHNSON: He entered the courtroom only a few moments before the arguments began. He didn't say much other than to ask his lawyers where to sit in the courtroom. He wrote some notes and passed a few of them to his attorneys.

After the hearing, he made a quick appearance at a nearby hotel, where he said he did nothing wrong and said he was being prosecuted for political reasons. But there is no evidence - none whatsoever - that the current president played any role in this case.

MARTIN: And the former president, Trump, has been using his legal troubles as a major part of his message on the campaign trail. He's certainly been fundraising around them. Could we hear more from him later this week?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. There are closing arguments on Thursday in New York in that civil fraud trial against Trump and his company. The former president plans to attend, and he's been pretty vocal about that case in the hallways in the courthouse. But Trump is now operating under a limited gag order there. After he attacked a court clerk and posted false information about her, the clerk received a lot of ugly threats that led to the gag order not only in New York. There's also one operating in D.C. now as well, after judges and other people were threatened in that case, too.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.