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The US Supreme Court has ruled that Donald Trump has broad immunity from criminal prosecution for his actions as president in a decision likely to delay his trial on charges of trying to overturn the 2020 election.

The landmark decision on Monday shields Trump for “official” acts. Lower courts will now have to draw the boundaries between a president’s personal and official acts.

The potentially time-consuming process reduces the likelihood of any verdict in the election interference case before November’s vote, in a win for Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

If elected, Trump could instruct the DoJ to drop the case. In a social media post, he wrote: “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”

The positive decision for Trump comes as the campaign of his opponent, President Joe Biden, reels from a disastrous performance at a debate between the candidates last week.

In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court held that a former president has absolute immunity from actions taken to exercise his “core constitutional powers” and “is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts”.

“The president enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the president does is official. The president is not above the law,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “But Congress may not criminalise the president’s conduct in carrying out the responsibilities of the executive branch under the constitution. And the system of separated powers designed by the framers has always demanded an energetic, independent executive.”

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority’s decision “reshapes the institution of the presidency” and “makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our constitution and system of government, that no man is above the law”.

The court’s majority “invents immunity through brute force” and “in effect, completely insulate[s] presidents from criminal liability”, Sotomayor added. “With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”  

Trump’s lawyers had argued for a broad interpretation of immunity, saying presidents may only be indicted if previously impeached and convicted by Congress for similar crimes — even in some of the most extreme circumstances — to allow them to do their jobs without fear of politically motivated prosecutions. The DoJ argued that doing so could embolden presidents to flout the law with impunity.

Roberts noted that lower courts had not determined which of Trump’s alleged conduct “should be categorised as official and which unofficial”. That process “raises multiple unprecedented and momentous questions about the powers of the president and the limits of his authority under the constitution”, he added.

Trump’s discussions with the acting US attorney-general counted as an “official relationship”, for instance, but other incidents, such as Trump’s comments to the public as well as interactions with then vice-president Mike Pence or state officials, “present more difficult questions”, Roberts added.

The court had previously ruled on presidential immunity from civil liability, but this is the first time it has made a determination with respect to criminal cases.

A federal appeals court in February unanimously ruled that Trump was not entitled to immunity in the case. The Supreme Court decided later that month to hear Trump’s appeal, with oral arguments in late April, effectively bringing proceedings in the trial case to a halt for months.

Monday’s decision will not affect Trump’s criminal case in New York state court, where he was convicted of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, in connection with “hush money” payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels in a bid to throw out damaging stories about him in the lead-up to the 2016 general election. Trump is set to be sentenced in that case on July 11.

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The former president has also been charged in Georgia state court in a racketeering case related to the 2020 election and in a separate federal indictment accusing him of mishandling classified documents. But these proceedings have yet to go to trial amid legal wrangling between Trump and US prosecutors.

A senior Biden campaign adviser said the ruling “doesn’t change the facts, so let’s be very clear about what happened on January 6: Donald Trump snapped after he lost the 2020 election and encouraged a mob to overthrow the results of a free and fair election”.

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