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Trump appears in court over claim to immunity in election interference

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump appeared in a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., today for arguments about whether he is immune from prosecution for his attempts to stay in power after the 2020 election, which he lost. His lawyer, John Sauer, made the case.

(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.

PFEIFFER: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the courthouse, and she's here now to talk more about the oral arguments. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Carrie, if the appeals court agrees with Trump, it would mean this case related to January 6 would end. Is that correct?

JOHNSON: That's right. Yeah.

PFEIFFER: And so then how did Trump's arguments go over with the judges?

JOHNSON: You know, all three judges at different points pushed back. I think that's because the implication for finding that a former president cannot be prosecuted for federal crimes - those implications are pretty huge. Here's one of the judges, Florence Pan.

(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: And Trump's lawyer, John Sauer, basically said former presidents cannot be charged with crimes unless they're impeached and convicted first. Trump, of course, was impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate after the siege on the Capitol. Another judge, Karen Henderson, basically said presidents take an oath to faithfully execute the law. So the idea that a president could get away scot-free with violating those same laws just didn't make sense to her.

PFEIFFER: This was Trump's first time back at the courthouse since his arraignment last August. What did he say or do?

JOHNSON: Donald Trump entered the courtroom only a few minutes before the argument began. He just said one thing. He asked his lawyers, is this where I sit? And Trump took notes. Sometimes he passed them to members of his legal team. The former president didn't say anything after the hearing, but he spoke afterward at a local hotel, arguing his prosecution is politically motivated even though there's no evidence - none - that the current president, Joe Biden, played any role in this case.

PFEIFFER: The man leading the prosecution, special counsel Jack Smith, also showed up at the courthouse. What did his team argue?

JOHNSON: James Pearce made the argument for the Justice Department and the special counsel team. Here's a bit of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES PEARCE: The president has a unique constitutional role, but he is not above the law. The former president enjoys no immunity from criminal prosecution.

JOHNSON: Pearce said it would be a frightening future if a former president could avoid criminal sanctions only because he wasn't impeached and convicted by the Senate.

PFEIFFER: So, Carrie, play this out for us. What are the different ways the judges might rule here?

JOHNSON: First, they could rule it's not the right time for Trump to appeal, that he needs to wait until after any trial happens, though both the Justice Department and Trump want the court to decide this now. Second, the court could side with the Justice Department and pave the way for Trump to file yet another appeal, perhaps eventually getting all the way to the Supreme Court. And finally, these judges could agree with Donald Trump, and that would bring an end to this case and potentially the case from the district attorney in Georgia, too.

PFEIFFER: But the clock is ticking. We're now less than one week away from the Iowa caucuses, and voters are only weeks from heading to the polls in many more states. So when might the court issue a ruling on Trump's immunity, and why does that matter?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The appeals court could rule at any time. Right now this D.C. trial, which was supposed to start March 4, is on pause. What's at stake is whether this trial or any of the Trump trials will happen before the presidential election.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you for following this.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. 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.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.