There Is No President Who Is Righteous, No, Not One

A government built on the assumption of its leader’s good character is a government badly built.

The Supreme Court’s Monday ruling on presidential immunity from criminal prosecution did not offer boundless endorsement of the executive officeholder’s prerogative to do whatever he wants without fear of consequence.

But it came far too close, holding that the Constitution “entitles a former President to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority.” He is further “entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts,” the court’s majority continued, though there’s “no immunity for unofficial acts.”

Exactly where our justice system will draw the line between official and unofficial remains to be seen. It’s still possible that the acts alleged here—former president Donald Trump’s attempted interference with the 2020 election—may be deemed unofficial, permitting his prosecution to move forward. This may be less a victory for Trump than he has claimed.

But set aside Trump and the official-unofficial distinction to think about this ruling’s larger implications. The president’s constitutional duties, as Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision observed, “are of ‘unrivaled gravity and breadth.’” Bracketing off unofficial acts is a good start, but it is only that.

And while stable governance may require us to protect a sitting president from prosecution so that, as the court said, he can do “his constitutional duties without undue caution,” extending that protection for the rest of his life is not only excessive but wildly risky. It says we must ultimately depend on nothing but presidential character …

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