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Supreme Court ends term with monumental Trump immunity ruling

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Supreme Court today decided that a president has absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for core constitutional powers, along with presumed immunity for official acts. But the court also ruled that the president lacks immunity for unofficial acts. The court has now sent the case back to the lower court to parse out what exactly constitutes an official act. The decision could have major consequences for the 2024 presidential campaign. And to talk about those, we're going to bring in now NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so what do you think this ruling will mean for the federal election interference case against former President Trump and also for the election, ultimately?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, it's a huge win for Trump, but just by the fact of the timeline because it now means there's no chance of a verdict in this case before the election. And this was seen as a case at the heart of the criticism against Trump with what happened on January 6. It's consequential politically because voters have been saying in polling that they could move at the margins, perhaps, away from Trump if he was convicted of these crimes that he's been - that have been investigated against him.

There were four criminal investigations into his conduct. Trump was convicted in one of those cases, the New York State fraudulent business practices case related to the 2016 election. And we saw the polls move a bit in Biden's favor after that felony conviction. And that was seen as the least potentially consequential of the cases. But now voters won't have the context of whether Trump is guilty in this January 6 case before they vote in the fall.

CHANG: Well, I imagine the Trump campaign must be pretty happy about this outcome at the Supreme Court. How were they reacting, specifically?

MONTANARO: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the Trump team is - you know, sent out a victory lap fundraising email minutes after the decision. And we know these cases have been a fundraising boon for Trump. Trump called the decision a, quote, "big win."

And all of how he's reacting really kind of pulls from the Trump playbook from past years - declaring victory even when the truth is a bit more nuanced, you know, like the Russia interference Mueller investigation, when he said he was exonerated when Mueller explicitly said he was not. It's how he reacted after he was impeached twice and a majority of senators voted to convict him, but not the two-thirds that's required for removal from office.

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: And Trump declared exoneration then, too. Trump has been able to insulate himself, really, with those tactics with his voters, suffer little consequences politically because of it. And his legal team has largely succeeded - except for that New York case, as I said before - in trying to dismiss, delay and distract.

CHANG: OK. Well, meanwhile, how is the Biden campaign reacting to all of this?

MONTANARO: Well, they're ripping from its own playbook too and dismissing the significance of what a court says. You know, like after Trump's New York conviction, the Biden campaign released a statement saying, in part, quote, "Trump's ruling doesn't change the facts of what happened on January 6." They also said that Donald Trump, quote, "snapped after he lost the 2020 election and encouraged a mob to overthrow the results of a free and fair election." And they noted that voters rejected Trump once, and that, quote, "Joe Biden will make sure they reject it for good in November."

Of course, the president has his own problems in trying to recover from his shaky debate performance last week, which Democrats fear is really hampering his ability to strongly make the case against Trump. But these legal issues are core to why Biden says people should vote for him despite concerns about his age, because of the two very different kinds of things that these men want to do for the country.

CHANG: Sure. But, I mean, regardless of what people think about this particular Supreme Court decision, you have people in both parties right now who do not trust this particular Supreme Court, particularly among Democrats in recent years. Can you just talk about how the court factors into this election more broadly?

MONTANARO: Well, the Supreme Court, no doubt, is, you know, going to be a central part - is a central part of the campaign already, not just because of decisions like this one, but also principally because of abortion rights. You know, they also happen to be the two things that the Biden campaign is running most strongly on. Dobbs - the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, wouldn't have happened if not for the justices Trump appointed. And it's likely this decision and what it could mean for the presidency likely wouldn't have either.

You had all three liberal justices dissenting in this case, most strongly by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said this decision makes a president, quote, "a king above the law." Foreign policy and judges, you know, are really things that presidents, you know, can control more than a lot of other things, but people don't seem to vote on them. You know, and as we're seeing, though, the Supreme Court can really affect generations of American social policy - in this current court's case, in a way conservatives love and in ways that people on the left loathe.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. 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.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.