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Official Acts

Remember, SCOTUS—Presidential Immunity Would Apply to Joe Biden, Too

We’re all nervous about what Donald Trump would do with immunity for official acts. But remember, two can play that game.

People demonstrate against Trump while the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on his claim of immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed during and after leaving office.
Allison Bailey/Getty Images
People demonstrate against Trump while the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on his claim of immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed during and after leaving office.

During last week’s oral arguments in United States v. Trump, it sure sounded like there might be five Supreme Court justices willing to conclude that a president should indeed have lifetime immunity from legal reprisal for official acts committed as president. This prospect is terrifying because it would hand a President Trump a nearly blank check to do anything he wants—to the Constitution, to his political opponents, to the executive branch—and there will be no way to stop him unless 67 votes emerge in the Senate to convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors and remove him from office, which seems a near impossibility, given Republicans’ excessive fealty to and fear of the man and his movement.

But then it occurred to me over the weekend: Well, wait a second. Donald Trump isn’t president. Joe Biden is. And if presidential immunity for official acts were to apply to a future President Trump, would it not also apply to current President Biden?

Of course it would. And I hope that fact has them doing some thinking in the Biden White House. Democrats should drive the point home to Republicans and the nation that two can play this game.

What “official acts” might Biden undertake once Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh, and possibly John Roberts declare him to be above the law? Well, let’s have some fun here.

Let’s start with the Supreme Court itself. Biden could wake up one day and announce that the court should have 13 members, or 15, and he could set about appointing the new associate justices and doing his best to ram them through the Senate, offering Joe Manchin trillions in economic development for West Virginia to secure the retiring senator’s support, between now and Election Day.

Politically risky? Sure. But maybe not as politically risky as most pundits would assume—and not nearly as costly to the republic as the things Trump is contemplating doing. Remember, the Constitution calls for no set number of justices. Biden would be within even his pre-immunity rights to try to change it. Two polls came out last fall asking respondents whether they’d favor court expansion, and the affirmative view prevailed in both: It was 54-46 in one, and 44-35 (with 22 percent having no opinion) in the other. That looks like a winnable political fight to me.

Biden would need only to make two arguments. Number one, this court delegitimized itself when it took away a half-century-old right, the right to a safe and legal abortion, in the Dobbs ruling. Every one of the justices who voted to strip that right away from women vowed in his or her confirmation hearing about their deep respect for precedent. They all lied. Number two, this very court gave me the power to do this! I’m only doing what this very Supreme Court just ruled a president was within his rights to do.

Okay. We all know Biden is not going to do that. He’s too respectful of tradition, and Democrats are too fearful of the right-wing noise machine, which would kick into an unprecedented outrage gear if Biden actually tried to make use of the tools the Supreme Court just handed him.

But here’s my point. If this court were to give presidents a grant of immunity for official acts, Biden should most certainly use the occasion to play some hardball. Make some threats about what he might do with this power. Get the American public thinking about some things they just don’t think about enough, leading public opinion in the direction of reforming aspects of our democratic system that badly need reform.

Take the Electoral College. Democrats have won seven of the last eight presidential elections, in popular vote terms, but this archaic and reactionary system that was put into place to give presidential candidates from slaveholding states an advantage has helped elect two Republicans who lost the popular vote.

I don’t think Biden should just unilaterally end the Electoral College—although, if he had immunity for all official acts, he could certainly give it a whirl, let conservatives bring a civil lawsuit, and see what his new 13-member Supreme Court thinks of the idea.

Less audaciously, he could certainly find some legal way to put an end to all these MAGA-driven attempts to seat alternate electors in states whose outcomes they dispute, which they did in seven states in 2020 and by all accounts are preparing to do again this year. Yes, the GOP-led House would impeach him, but so what? There’d never be 67 votes in the Senate to convict. And as with court expansion, if it were clear that he had really won the disputed states, public opinion would be on Biden’s side, and he’d have pushed the Overton window dramatically in the direction of eventual abolition of the Electoral College.

Okay, this, too, is a little out there for Biden. More seriously, he could use an immunity grant to issue a series of rulings and orders that would be aimed toward two ends: one, shoring up some of his policy decisions against the inevitable Trump reversals should Trump be elected, and two, preemptively making it harder for Trump to do some of the things that the infamous Project 2025 pledges he will do.

On the former, for example, the Biden administration could undertake a number of administrative moves on the civil rights and labor fronts to make it harder for Trump to undo what Team Biden has done. And on the latter, Biden can find a way to make it basically impossible for Trump to implement his so-called Schedule F plans, under which Trump would give himself the authority to fire more federal workers and replace them with lackeys. And that’s just for starters. With immunity for official acts, Biden could preemptively defang a lot of what promises to be undemocratic and authoritarian about a Trump second term.

Of course, the Supreme Court might not even issue a ruling on immunity. It might just remand it back to the Washington, D.C., appeals court that ruled in February that Citizen Trump was not immune from prosecution—that is, the high court’s real intent may just have been to delay the prosecution of Trump on January 6 insurrection charges, not to shield him from prosecution.

But I hope we’ve all learned by now never to underestimate the cynical perfidy of this court majority. They may well limit presidential immunity, thinking they’re helping Trump remake the country in his fascist fashion. They’ll calculate that the old institutionalist Biden would never use his new powers in the closing months and weeks of his term. It would be delicious to see him prove them wrong.