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What does the presidential immunity decision mean for the Jan. 6 case against Trump?


We're going to go back to that consequential and controversial Supreme Court ruling delivered yesterday that former President Donald Trump is entitled to a level of immunity for what he did in the final days of his presidency.

Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson took a close look at the former president's conduct as the former chairman of that bipartisan House select committee to investigate the January 6 attack. So we called him to get his views on the court's decision, and he's with us now. Good morning, Congressman.

BENNIE THOMPSON: Good morning.

MARTIN: I just want to remind people that your committee interviewed more than a thousand people. You reviewed more than a million documents. You've shared some of that evidence with the Justice Department, which also had its own investigation. But I have to say that Chief Justice Roberts, in writing for the majority, didn't really seem to entertain any of the motives behind the president's conduct, but rather seemed to focus on the view that the founders intended for the president to have a lot of authority and that without immunity for official acts, the president might be hesitant to take bold and fearless action. What do you think about that argument?

THOMPSON: Well, again, thank you for having me. But, Michel, one of the charges we had as a committee was to look at the facts and circumstances that brought about January 6. And it was no question in the minds of the committee that everything that occurred, Donald Trump, as president, promoted it. He invited people to Washington. He'd said it would be wild. He had surrogates all over the country drumming up energy to come to Washington. And as you know, after he gave his famous speech, he encouraged people to go to the Capitol and express themselves. And that's just what they did. He attacked his vice president for not following his edicts of stopping the orderly transfer of power, which was the counting of the electoral votes.

So, for all intents and purposes, our committee looked at it. And in summation, it was clear that Donald Trump was the person who created all the things around January 6.

MARTIN: No, I take your point. But did you think that the court would take that into account because their argument was that he has a lot of authority, and he used it in this case, and that what he did was in the scope of his official authority, or rather that the lower court has to make that determination what was official, what wasn't official? But they said he should have the presumption of immunity. Did you think that they might rule differently?

THOMPSON: Well, from my standpoint, you know, I look at it that even if you are president, there's something that's called right and wrong. And you can't do something wrong and ultimately have no consequences for it. I'm convinced the court has errored. But obviously, we'll look forward, with the lower court conducting some of the hearings on it and looking at the information.

But I think for some of the words that we've heard from former President Trump, saying that he wants to be a dictator for a day, that he wants to terminate certain aspects of the Constitution, that's very dangerous. I don't believe the framers of our Constitution, in setting up this form of government, ever envisioned the Supreme Court giving unbridled power to the president of the United States.

MARTIN: If you feel that - if you believe that to be the case, what do you do now, given that, you know, you have your own role - constitutional role as - under the separation of powers, as we've discussed? And, of course, you certainly know better than anybody that the Democrats are in the minority in the House. What do you do? Do you have any sort of scope of action now, given those concerns?

THOMPSON: Well, I think we, as Americans, have to look seriously at this. We have to let our voices be heard, and we speak at the ballot box in November. I think part of the conversation between now and November is, do you want a system of checks and balances, or do you want a president to be the equivalent of a dictator operating in what we've historically known to be the greatest democracy in the world?

It is a very tenuous time for us as Americans. I think what we have from this court is exactly what Donald Trump intended when he put those individuals on the court. He has altered the normal course of jurisprudence in this country.

MARTIN: Well, given that and given President Biden's - given that you feel that way and given President Biden's lackluster performance at the debate last week, what should happen now? I mean, do you think the president should step aside?

THOMPSON: Well, I think - no, I don't, but I do think that we have to elevate the conversation to the point that would you want somebody like Donald Trump as president so he can do all these things, or would you want Joe Biden, who's historically followed what the courts have historically said presidential powers includes? And so I think once people understand what's at risk and the fact that the world is watching between now and November, I shudder to think what some of our NATO allies are contemplating right now if Donald Trump is brought back as president.

MARTIN: Do you think that...

THOMPSON: So it...

MARTIN: ...President Biden has the vigor to do this job for the next four years, given that, as you noted out, the composition of the court relies heavily on President Trump's appointments? There is a possibility - not a certainty, but a possibility - that there could be additional appointments. Do you think that President Biden has the vigor to do this job for another four years?

THOMPSON: Well, yes, I do, but obviously he has to have a crackerjack team of advisers around him 24/7 to make sure that everything works well. But obviously, any president should have that. I look at former presidents of the past. They've had good advisers. Joe Biden has had good people around him.

I don't equate one bad performance at - as a debate as the end of an administration. Just about everyone that I'm associated with has had a bad day. But that doesn't mean that's the path forward. You correct it. You get good people around you, Michel, and you do what's in the interests of this country. Donald Trump historically does what's in his best interest, not the interests of the people.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Congressman, Mississippi is tough - that's where you're from - is tough territory for a Democrat in any event. How are your constituents responding to the president's debate performance last week? What are they saying to you? Congressman? I think we lost him.

That was Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson, and we want to thank him for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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