Presidential Immunity: Trump Makes a Good Point Without Meaning To

Barack Obama and Donald Trump

“It’s the opening of a Pandora’s Box,” Donald Trump said on January 9, musing on the possibility of a court rejecting his claim that, as a former president, he must enjoy life-long immunity from criminal prosecution for pretty much anything and everything he did while in office.

“[I]f I wasn’t given immunity, then other presidents that we talked about today, President Obama with the drone strikes, which were really bad. They were mistakes, they were terrible mistakes. You really can’t put a president in that position. … A president has to have immunity.”

Personally, I’d like to see that Pandora’s Box opened in precisely the way Trump mentions.

In 2011, then-president Barack Obama ordered the murder of an American citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki — in Yemen. Whatever his alleged crimes might have been, he hadn’t been charged with, arrested for (or taken in resistance of arrest for), tried for, or convicted of those crimes in the United States. The basis for the murder was a Justice Department memo that wasn’t publicly released until 2014.

Later that year al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman — also an American citizen — died in another Obama-authorized drone strike. When questioned on the matter, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blamed the victim for having the wrong father.

In 2017,  US Navy SEALs murdered yet a third al-Awlaki — eight-year-old American citizen Nawar, Anwar’s daughter and Abdulrahman’s half-sister — in a raid approved by … hmm … then president Donald Trump.

What’s so outrageous about suggesting that a president who orders American citizens murdered should be held to answer in the same way, and face the same penalties, as a Mafia don who orders a competitor killed, or a regular American who hires a hit-man to murder a spouse?

Over time, American presidents have come to enjoy nearly unlimited power with little likelihood of being held accountable for how they exercise that power, and minimal penalties when they are.

Trump argues that that small likelihood and those minimal penalties should both be reduced to zero.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that former presidents accused of crimes are entitled to the due process of law they denied Anwar, Abdulrhman, and Nawar al-Awlaki.

But broad  immunity for real crimes isn’t due process of law.  In fact, it DENIES due process of law, and justice in general, to the victims of presidential crimes.

Presidents should be held to a higher, not lower, standard of conduct than those they presume to rule.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.