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The U.S. Supreme Court building is shown May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP) The U.S. Supreme Court building is shown May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP)

The U.S. Supreme Court building is shown May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson July 2, 2024
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman July 2, 2024

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with developments in the New York case.

In a landmark ruling with potentially major impact on the 2024 presidential campaign, a U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled that presidents — including former President Donald Trump — have immunity from prosecution when carrying out "official acts." 

"Under our constitutional structure of separated powers, the nature of Presidential power entitles a former President to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority," the court wrote. "And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts. There is no immunity for unofficial acts."

The July 1 decision in Trump v. United States fell along partisan lines, with the six conservative justices voting in the majority and the three liberal justices dissenting.

The ruling follows the June 27 presidential debate and comes amid a campaign in which both political parties have cried foul over perceived abuses of presidential power. This issue is sure to become an issue on the campaign trail. 

Here are some key facts to keep in mind from the ruling.

The ruling almost certainly helps Trump avoid further trials before the election

In the short term, the ruling will almost certainly delay past this November’s general election Trump’s federal prosecution on charges that he interfered with the 2020 election. That’s because the justices sent the case back to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to determine which elements of the indictment would count as official and unofficial acts, a process that legal experts said cannot be sorted out before Election Day, especially because any trial court decisions could be appealed.

"Today’s ruling ensures that no criminal prosecution of Trump may proceed before the election," Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, said in an email. "Trump will raise this opinion as a defense."

The campaigns have highlighted perceived presidential power abuses 

Trump replied on Truth Social, "BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!" In a fundraising email, the Trump campaign wrote "Crooked Joe Biden KNEW this case would fall apart, but he STILL had his out-of-control DOJ try to TAKE ME DOWN!" 

Biden is not responsible for decisions by prosecutors to present cases to grand juries.

Trump has previously called the New York case a "Biden trial" which we rated false. The Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into Trump’s business records began before Biden was president, but Biden was president by the time Trump was charged in 2023. While District Attorney Alvin Bragg hired a former Justice Department lawyer, that doesn’t prove that Biden directed the prosecution. 

In brief remarks that evening, Biden said the Supreme Court's ruling means "For all practical purposes, today’s decision almost certainly means that there are virtually no limits on what the president can do." Biden vowed to continue to "respect the limits of the presidential powers" and expressed concern over preserving the democracy. 

Earlier in the day, the Biden campaign said in a statement, "Today’s ruling doesn’t change the facts, so let’s be very clear about what happened on January 6th: Donald Trump snapped after he lost the 2020 election and encouraged a mob to overthrow the results of a free and fair election." On that day, Trump held a "Save America" rally at which he repeatedly said there was a need to "fight" and invited his supporters to go to the Capitol. Trump often highlights that he used the word "peacefully" during his remarks

The Biden campaign also highlighted past Trump statements including that he is "promising to be a dictator ‘on Day 1’" — a reference to Trump’s December interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, when Trump said during the interview that he would be a dictator only on "Day 1" adding "We are closing the border and we are drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I am not a dictator, OK?"

Trump has made other comments that sound authoritarian. The Biden campaign also said Trump had promised "a bloodbath if he loses." 

Trump was discussing the auto industry and electric vehicles in March when he made the "bloodbath" comment.

Biden’s campaign also highlighted Trump’s remark about terminating the Constitution. In 2022, Trump said on Truth Social that election fraud could be the basis for the "termination" of rules found in the Constitution, although days later he sought to walk back his words, writing in a new post, "The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution, and called it "disinformation and lies." 

We fact-checked Trump’s statement that election fraud allows the termination of rules including in the Constitution and rated it Pants on Fire

The ruling significantly limits checks on presidential power

The ruling’s longer-term implications could be just as important as its impact on Trump’s legal cases. 

Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion is the "ultimate clapback for Watergate," Stephen Griffin, a Tulane University law professor, said in an email. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon "need never have feared prosecution, and President Gerald Ford’s pardon would have been completely unnecessary."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor made this argument in her sharply worded dissent, which Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor, called "the most chilling part" of the opinions released today.

Sotomayor wrote that the decision "effectively creates a law-free zone around the president, upsetting the status quo that has existed since the founding. … Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune. … In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law."

The majority offered phrases in its opinion that suggest limits to presidential immunity. 

Roberts argued that "the president is not above the law," writing that "the president enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the president does is official."

However, Roberts added that a president "may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts."

The ruling "effectively makes criminal prosecutions of former presidents all but impossible, whatever Roberts may have said," Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri emeritus law professor, said. "Virtually any awful thing a president can do in office can arguably be placed in either the core power or official conduct box, thus affording the president's crimes either absolute or presumptive immunity."

The majority opinion also set other obstacles to prosecuting a president. For instance, the opinion says, "In dividing official from unofficial conduct, courts may not inquire into the president’s motives."

Another aspect of the ruling is notably sweeping, said Joan Meyer, a partner at the law firm Thompson Hine LLP who has worked as a federal and local prosecutor. 

"Testimony or records of the former president and his advisors relating to the immune conduct may not be admitted into evidence at trial," Meyer said. "It’s one thing to say that the immune conduct cannot be charged as a criminal violation. It is another to say the prosecutor cannot enter any evidence about it to explain the facts and circumstances supporting the permissible charges."

On this point, Justice Amy Coney Barrett broke with the majority’s other five members. "I appreciate the Court’s concern that allowing into evidence official acts for which the President cannot be held criminally liable may prejudice the jury," Barrett wrote. "But the rules of evidence are equipped to handle that concern on a case-by-case basis."

Given how the oral arguments went, "I was not surprised that the court granted immunity for official acts," Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt said. However, he added that he was "surprised by how broadly they seemed to define what constitutes an official act."

After Supreme Court ruling, Trump lawyers sought delay in Manhattan sentencing

A unanimous jury in the Manhattan case concluded May 30 that Trump was guilty of all 34 counts of falsifying business records in an alleged scheme to cover up a hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. Trump had indicated he planned to appeal.

Trump was scheduled to be sentenced July 11, however, after the Supreme Court ruling lawyers for Trump sought a delay in the sentencing. Prosecutors did not oppose the delay although they wrote in a letter to Judge Juan Merchan "we believe defendant's arguments to be without merit."

Trump’s lawyers requested until July 10 to submit a memo in support of their motion and prosecutors sought until July 24 to respond. Merchan granted those requests and set sentencing for Sept. 18 "if such is still necessary."

Trump’s case in Georgia could be affected, to a degree

A legal expert said the Supreme Court’s decision  could have some impact inTrump’s fourth legal case, involving an indictment by a Fulton County grand jury for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, told PolitiFact that the "vast majority of the Fulton County indictment against Trump is unaffected by today's decision."

However, the ruling could restrict some evidence from being used, such as conversations between Trump and Trump administration officials including Jefffrey Clark, a Justice Department official, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, Kreis said. Clark and Meadows were among the co-defendants prosecuted by Fulton County.

Those conversations "will be part of protected conduct that cannot be used against Trump as evidence in furtherance of proving other charges."

The ruling "also complicates how the defendants get tried," Kreis said. "I am doubtful Clark and Meadows can be tried alongside Trump now, which somewhat complicates how the trial might move forward."

The Fulton County prosecution had already faced delays, which made a trial before November unlikely even before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

University of Georgia law professor Melissa Redmon, a former Fulton County prosecutor, said that the Fulton case as a whole remains intact, but it will have some impact. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said he would wait for the Supreme Court ruling on immunity before deciding how to proceed in the Georgia case.

PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

RELATED: Read all of PolitiFact’s coverage on Donald Trump indictments

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Our Sources

Georgia Appeals Court, Donald John Trump v. The State, 2024

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia court sets Oct. 4 as tentative hearing date in Fani Willis appeal, June 3, 2024

CNN, Georgia court of appeals indefinitely pauses the election subversion conspiracy case against Donald Trump, June 5, 2024

PolitiFact, The Supreme Court will decide Donald Trump’s immunity case. Here are the arguments. April 22, 2024

Former President Donald Trump, Truth Social post, June 15, 2024

PolitiFact, Live: Fact-checking Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s first 2024 presidential debate, June 27, 2024

Biden campaign, Statement on Supreme Court ruling, July 1, 2024

Georgetown law professor Steve Vladeck, X post, July 1, 2024

Manhattan District Attorney, Letter to Judge Merchan, July 2, 2024

Judge Juan Merchan, Letter, July 2, 2024

Email interview with Anthony Michael Kreis, George State University law professor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Jerry Goldfeder, senior counsel at the law firm Cozen O'Connor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Stephen Griffin, Tulane University law professor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Michael Gerhardt, University of North Carolina law professor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Joan Meyer, partner at the law firm Thompson Hine LLP who has worked as a prosecutor at the federal and local level, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Brian Kalt, Michigan State University law professor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas law professor, July 1, 2024

Email interview with Frank Bowman, University of Missouri emeritus law professor, July 1, 2024

Telephone interview with Melissa Redmon, University of Georgia School of Law clinical assistant professor and director of the Prosecutorial Justice Program, July 1, 2024

See links for additional sources.

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