-2

The title says it all.

Trump told Bob Woodward that he knew in February that the coronavirus was deadly but decided to actively and consciously deceive the public and not take decisive action to prepare for a deadly pandemic. Had this been a factory, and Trump a factory owner, I suppose that would at a minimum constitute tort and entitle the victims to compensation.1

Let's assume that with better information and adequate government action people would have protected themselves, many infections would have been prevented and the medical response would have been better, preventing many entirely foreseeable deaths.

Do the President's actions constitute a crime, e.g. negligent homicide?

If so, could he be charged while in office, or afterwards? Note that this question is distinct from oft-asked similar questions concerning actions by the President unrelated to his office, like this one: His decisions and actions were made and performed in his official function as President of the United States.


1 There is a lawsuit under way demanding compensation from the Austrian government for its failure to adequately address the outbreak in Ischgl, the ski resort which bootstrapped the European pandemic.

3
  • I made a few edits; please feel free to adjust if you don't find them helpful.
    – Pat W.
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:57
  • @PatW. thanks. Funny, I wrote "oft-asked" first and then looked it up in M-W (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oft) where it is not hyphenated. Googling it now shows both, and a hyphen does feel more natural. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 14:01
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because it's sole purpose is not to learn anything about the law. This question's sole purpose was pushing a political message during a Presidential election.
    – grovkin
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 4:10

2 Answers 2

4

The closest the Supreme Court has gotten to criminal liability for official acts seems to be Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982). There it addressed civil liability and held that the U.S. President "is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts."

It's unclear how the Justices would decide criminal liability for official acts. (Though some might argue that non-precedential logic in Fitzgerald suggests the Court could extend immunity to the criminal context as well.)

As to homicide, murder and manslaughter are federal crimes. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111–1112. The latter involves the commission "of a lawful act which might produce death" "without due caution and circumspection."

3
  • Interesting. Extending immunity seems sound. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:43
  • I'm indeed not sure at all whether there is a crime at all. The thing which comes to mind first for a continental European is the failure to comply with the duty to aid (the French seem to be more compassionate than the British, don't they); but this is not a crime in Washington D.C., like it isn't in most Common Law jurisdictions. Lying in itself is not a crime; does not doing something constitute an act? Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:54
  • And then there is the more ontological question whether a crime is legally a crime even if it cannot be prosecuted because of immunity. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 14:13
3

The President has absolute immunity from civil and criminal liability for the consequences of his discretionary official policy decisions (as do all legislators at all levels of government, all prosecutors, all judges, and many top policymaking elected and appointed officials like Governors, Mayors, a cabinet secretaries). He cannot be prosecuted after he leaves office for those decisions. As noted by Pat W.:

Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982) held that the U.S. President "is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts." It addressed civil liability, but there is a widely recognized parallel absolute immunity from criminal liability predicated on his official acts (even under state law).

To remove some of the partisanship from the question, President Obama personally ordered and authorized the assassination of particular named individuals who were believed to be associated with terrorist organizations. This would be first degree murder in the absence of some form of governmental immunity, because it is the premeditated killing of another human being for purposes other than self-defense or the defense of others who are at imminent and immediate risk of death. Yet, President Obama is likewise absolutely immune from civil and criminal liability under the laws of any U.S. jurisdiction (and under the sovereign immunity rules of more foreign jurisdictions) for his decisions.

Indeed, failing to make an adequate policy defense to a known risk of a pandemic, and not sharing that knowledge more widely, purportedly to "prevent a panic" would be, at most, a form of gross negligence even in the absence of absolute immunity, and more realistically, simply a bad decision that didn't violate any legal duty, and would not constitute murder under the laws of any state.

So, in answer to your questions:

Trump knowingly let thousands of people die from Corona; was that criminal?

No.

If yes, could he be charged (now or after his Presidency)?

Because it is not criminal, the answer is no.

2
  • Thanks for the answer, and I like the Obama addition (although the Office of Legal Counsel probably had a different opinion). After what you said before, I'd assume the last sentence could read "Criminal or not, the answer is no"? Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 23:40
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica No. The last sentence makes a different point, which is that the underlying conduct attributed to Trump wouldn't be a crime in the absence of legal immunity in any case.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 4:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .