The ruling forces Trump to move quickly to ask the conservative-majority Supreme Court to intervene in the landmark case accusing Trump of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. Otherwise, the case — which has been on hold since December — will be re-started at the trial court level, and special counsel Jack Smith's team has strongly pushed for jurors to hear it this year.
What happens next is of paramount importance to both sides.
Trump's lawyers have tried at every opportunity to delay the proceedings, for obvious reasons: A Trump victory over Democrat Biden in November would make him head of the executive branch and give him the authority to potentially order his new attorney general to dismiss the federal cases against him that he faces, or issue a pardon for himself. The Republican presidential primary front-runner has denied any wrongdoing in the case, and has characterized all the cases against him as politically motivated.
Here's a look at Trump's options and what the Supreme Court might do:
WHAT ARE TRUMP'S OPTIONS NOW?
The ruling doesn't immediately send the case back to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. The appeals court is giving Trump until Feb. 12 to ask the Supreme Court to stay — or put on hold — the decision.
A Trump campaign spokesman said Tuesday that the former president would appeal the ruling “in order to safeguard the Presidency and the Constitution.” Trump argues that all the allegations in the indictment were “official acts” taken as president, therefore he can't be prosecuted.
Trump could also potentially ask the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to consider his immunity claims, but the panel said that such a request would not prevent the case from returning to the trial court and resuming in the meantime.
WHAT WILL THE SUPREME COURT DO?
It’s hard to say. Any untested legal question involving separation of powers and the scope of presidential authority is indisputably a consequential one. But lower court judges — nominated to the bench by presidents from both political parties — have suggested that this particular case is not a close call in rulings that have roundly rejected Trump’s immunity arguments.
Five of the nine justices must agree to grant a stay in order to prevent the case from resuming in the trial court. And at least four justices must agree in order for the court to hear arguments in any case.
The justices declined an earlier request from the special counsel's team to get involved in the immunity dispute and to issue an expedited ruling. But they could jump into the fray now and use the case as an opportunity to make a definitive ruling on whether the immunity from lawsuits that former presidents already have for their official actions should be extended into the criminal realm as well.
The Supreme Court is already weighing some other politically charged cases. The justices, for instance, are hearing arguments this week in a legal dispute stemming from the push by Republican and independent voters in Colorado to kick Trump off the state's Republican primary ballot because of his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden.
WHEN MIGHT THE TRIAL BEGIN?
Judge Chutkan had initially scheduled the case for trial on March 4, but canceled that date last week. A new date wasn't immediately set.
The timing now depends on the Supreme Court and its willingness to take up the case. There’s no timetable for any of that, though the justices are likely to seek the input of Smith’s team before deciding whether to keep the legal ruling against the former president on hold.
A decision by the court to refuse Trump’s plea for a stay would enable Chutkan to restart the proceedings, and to do so fairly quickly. But if the court grants the Trump team's request to take up the case, all eyes will be on whatever timetable the court establishes in determining the next steps.
If the court grants Trump’s request without accelerating the appeals process, Trump would likely have until early May before he even needs to file his full appeal. But the justices could also set much quicker deadlines for reaching a final decision.
The case has been effectively frozen since December by the Trump team’s appeal, meaning that if and when it restarts, Chutkan will give both sides an additional opportunity to respond to pending motions and arguments.
WHAT ABOUT TRUMP'S OTHER CASES?
The Washington trial being put on hold has opened the door for a separate case in New York, charging Trump in connection with hush money payments to a porn actor, to proceed first on March 25. That case, however, has long been viewed by experts as the least legally perilous of the four indictments Trump faces.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida has set a May 20 trial date in the other case brought by Smith that accuses Trump of illegally hoarding classified documents at his Florida estate and obstructing FBI efforts to get them back. But Cannon has also pushed back multiple other deadlines and signaled an openness to revisiting the trial date during a pivotal pretrial conference set for March.
No trial date has been set yet in Fulton County, Georgia, where the district attorney's office has charged Trump with trying to subvert that state's 2020 election.
Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.