WASHINGTON ― The question of whether a U.S. president should have full immunity from prosecution, as Donald Trump has argued while awaiting a federal court ruling on his attempt to overturn an election he lost, divided Senate Republicans on Thursday.
Some GOP senators flatly rejected the former president’s immunity claims, calling them antithetical to U.S. criminal justice. Others suggested that the matter is more complex than it appears and needs more study before they can offer an opinion.
“It’s a very specific legal argument, and I’m afraid I’m just not up on it enough to be able to comment,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian-leaning critic of executive overreach who once mounted a 12-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to warn about the threat of drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil.
Trump on Thursday wrote on his Truth Social website that presidents should have total immunity even for “EVENTS THAT ‘CROSS THE LINE,’” adding that “SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO LIVE WITH ‘GREAT BUT SLIGHTLY IMPERFECT.’”
Trump has been charged by the Department of Justice with engaging in a conspiracy by seeking to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election. His lawyers argued in federal court earlier this month that his efforts were official acts and that he is, therefore, immune from prosecution.
Although presidents enjoy legal immunity for actions taken as part of their official duties, courts have never addressed whether that protection extends to criminal prosecution.
Members of both parties on Capitol Hill pushed back against Trump’s claims, saying that presidents aren’t above the law.
“I think the law should apply to everybody,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost on Thursday. “That’s one of the things that makes America unique, and it’s very important.”
“It doesn’t seem like that fits with the way we’ve done things for a couple hundred years,” added Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, when asked about Trump’s broad immunity claim.
Other senators suggested that Trump’s argument would open up the possibility of presidents doing anything they wish and avoiding prosecution once they leave office.
“What if the ex-president commits murder — then he can’t be charged?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. “That seems weird, right? That seems problematic.”
But this didn’t change Hawley’s belief that Trump should retake the White House. “He’s going to say things I disagree with; it doesn’t mean we see eye to eye on everything,” Hawley said.
Other GOP senators who are supporting Trump’s 2024 bid said that his claims of total immunity are simply being misinterpreted.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the latest GOP senator to back Trump’s presidential campaign, said that “nobody” thinks presidents ought to have total immunity to do whatever they want in office.
“That’s how the press is framing it,” Cruz said. “His legal argument is different.”
Trump’s attorneys did, in fact, argue that presidents may be prosecuted if they are first impeached by the U.S. House and then convicted in the Senate. But Trump didn’t make that distinction Thursday on Truth Social, and Cruz declined to discuss the matter further as he walked into a Senate GOP lunch on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who, like Cruz, faced brutal attacks from Trump as they competed in the 2016 GOP presidential primary — also voiced a defense of Trump on Thursday.
He called the DOJ’s charges against Trump “a stretch,” arguing that the former president isn’t personally responsible for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress even though he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol and he spread lies about the legitimacy of the November 2020 election.
However, even Rubio stopped short of endorsing the kind of absolute immunity that Trump has claimed in and out of court.
“If some president is taking bribes, they’re obviously not going to be immune from prosecution,” Rubio said.