By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Donald Trump on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put on hold a judicial decision rejecting his claim that he is immune from being prosecuted for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, arguing that without such a shield "the presidency as we know it will cease to exist."
Trump, seeking to regain the presidency in the Nov. 5 U.S. election, asked the justices to pause a Feb. 6 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejecting his claim of immunity from prosecution.
Trump's lawyers in a brief to the Supreme Court warned that "conducting a months-long criminal trial of President Trump at the height of election season will radically disrupt President Trump's ability to campaign" against President Joe Biden ahead of the election.
They asked the justices to halt the trial proceedings pending their bid for the full slate of judges on the D.C. Circuit to reconsider the case, and, if necessary, an appeal to the Supreme Court. A March 4 trial date for Trump in federal court in Washington on four criminal counts pursued by Special Counsel Jack Smith already was postponed, with no new date set.
Trump, the first former president to be criminally prosecuted, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Biden, a Democrat who defeated him in 2020.
Slowing the case could benefit Trump. If he wins the November election and returns to the White House, he could use his presidential powers to force an end to the prosecution or potentially pardon himself for any federal crimes.
Trump's lawyers painted a dark picture - rejected by the D.C. Circuit - of what would befall future presidents if his criminal prosecution is allowed to proceed, warning of partisan prosecutions, extortion, blackmail and more.
"Without immunity from criminal prosecution, the presidency as we know it will cease to exist," his lawyers wrote.
"Any decision by the president on a politically controversial question would face the threat of indictment by the opposing party after a change in administrations. All presidential decisions would be exposed to undue, wrongful pressure from opposing political forces, under a threat of indictment after the president has left office," they wrote.
"The threat of prosecution will become a political cudgel used to influence the most sensitive and important presidential decisions with the menace of personal vulnerability after leaving office," they added.
The D.C. Circuit's decision stated that the "risk that former presidents will be unduly harassed by meritless federal criminal prosecutions appears slight."
Trump's lawyers also repeated his longstanding claim that the prosecution is politically motivated.
The Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by Trump. The charges brought by Smith in August 2023 came in one of four criminal cases now pending against Trump, including another one in a Georgia state court also involving his efforts to undo his 2020 loss.
'NO SPECIAL CONDITIONS'
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, presiding over the case brought by Smith, in December rejected Trump's immunity claim, ruling that former presidents "enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability."
After Trump appealed, the D.C. Circuit's three-judge panel also rebuffed Trump's immunity claim.
"We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter," the panel wrote in its decision.
During January arguments before the D.C. Circuit, one of Trump's lawyers told the judges that even if a president sold pardons or military secrets or ordered a Navy commando unit to assassinate a political rival, he could not be criminally charged unless he is first impeached and convicted in Congress.
Prosecutors have argued that Trump was acting as a candidate, not a president, when he pressured officials to overturn the election results and encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to pressure Congress not to certify Biden's victory.
The indictment accused Trump of conspiring to defraud the United States, obstructing the congressional certification of Biden's electoral victory and conspiring to do so, and conspiring against right of Americans to vote.
Trump last October sought to have the charges dismissed based on his claim of immunity from criminal prosecution related to actions taken by a president while in office.
He has regularly made sweeping claims of immunity. The Supreme Court in 2020 spurned Trump's argument that he was immune from a subpoena issued during state criminal investigation while he was president.
The Supreme Court in December declined Smith's request to decide the immunity claim even before the D.C. Circuit ruled - a bid by the prosecutor to speed up the process of resolving the matter. The justices opted instead to let the lower appeals court rule first, as is customary.
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)