Despite the former president’s attempts, a federal court in Washington decided that hundreds of pages of Trump White House papers will be given over to a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the United States Capitol.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s ruling clears the way for the release of federal documents demanded by Congress to begin on Friday. Attorneys for former President Donald Trump promptly filed an appeal and tried to halt the National Archives’ publication of the materials awaiting a decision by the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Chutkan wrote in a 39-page opinion that the House panel and the Justice Department “contend that discovering and coming to terms with the causes underlying the January 6 attack is a matter of unsurpassed public importance because such information relates to our core democratic institutions and the public’s confidence in them. The court agrees.”
“The court holds that the public interest lies in permitting—not enjoining—the combined will of the legislative and executive branches to study the events that led to and occurred on January 6, and to consider legislation to prevent such events from ever occurring again,” the judge wrote.
House Democrats are investigating Trump’s contacts and behavior leading up to and during the disturbance by a mob of his fans, which resulted in at least five fatalities and caused the evacuation of Congress as it gathered to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The House has stated in court documents that it need the communications records of “of the then-President who helped foment the breakdown in the rule of law” by gathering thousands of supporters in Washington after a months-long attempt to falsely label the 2020 election as stolen.
Trump sued the chairman of the House’s Jan. 6 select committee and the director of the National Archives on Oct. 18 in an effort to halt the panel’s request for executive branch materials. Attorneys for Trump opposed to the release of the data, claiming that as a former president, he held the ability to invoke executive privilege, even though President Biden had relinquished it.
Presidents need “full and frank” guidance to carry out their responsibilities, and the secrecy of such discussions must last more than a few months or years after they leave office to maintain the institution of the president, according to his attorneys.
The appeals court set a deadline for first written briefing on Dec. 27, and Trump urged Chutkan for an interim injunction preventing the publication of information pending appeal. Legal commentators predict that the struggle will go far into next year, with a delay perhaps working in Trump’s favor if the courts do not resolve the issue before the November 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans seek to defeat current Democratic Congress.
Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich threatened on Twitter that the legal battle is just getting started.
“The battle to defend executive privilege for presidents past, present and future. . . was destined to be decided by the appellate courts,” Budowich said in a written statement. “President Trump remains committed to defending the Constitution and the office of the presidency, and will be seeing this process through.”
However, Chutkan emphasized in her decision that the Biden administration had allowed the release of his predecessor’s White House documents.
The court stated that there can only be one president at a time, and that Trump’s claim of executive privilege “is outweighed by President Biden’s decision not to uphold the privilege.”
“Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President,” Chutkan said, echoing wording used by colleague justice Ketanji B. Jackson in denying Trump’s attempt to dismiss a congressional subpoena demanding testimony from his White House counsel Donald McGahn in 2019.
“He [Trump] retains the right to assert that his records are privileged, but the incumbent President ‘is not constitutionally obliged to honor’ that assertion,” Chutkan wrote.
Chutkan went on to say that she would not second-guess that decision by conducting a document-by-document review, as requested by Trump’s lawyers, because doing so would require “the court to engage in a function reserved squarely for the Executive.”
If the verdict is affirmed, it may significantly speed up the committee’s work. Many of the approximately 800 pages of papers requested by Trump to be suppressed, such as White House visitor and phone logs, are not accessible elsewhere.
Emails and other correspondence; draft speeches and talking points on election violations; and notes outlining prospective litigation against states Biden won were also recognized as relevant materials by the National Archives.
They also contain “potential or scheduled briefings and telephone calls concerning the January 6 certification and other election issues,” as well as a draft executive order on election integrity.
“The District Court has delivered an important victory for the Constitution, the rule of law and the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a written statement, “No one can be allowed to stand in the way of the truth – particularly not the previous President, who instigated and encouraged the insurrection.”
At least 20 senior Trump aides have been subpoenaed by the panel, including former Trump head of staff Mark Meadows and advisor Stephen K. Bannon.
Last month, the House decided to hold Bannon in criminal contempt for his refusal to comply, bringing his case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. During a closed-door appearance with the panel on Friday, former Justice Agency employee Jeffrey Clark also declined to answer questions about whether Trump sought to use the department to reverse the election.
Six others were served subpoenas last Thursday, including legal scholar John Eastman and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who were engaged in the Willard hotel “command center” where Trump’s staunch supporters monitored attempts to reverse the 2020 election in January.
Bill Stepien, reelection campaign manager; senior advisor Jason Miller; national executive assistant Angela McCallum; and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn were among the others.
The panel subpoenaed ten other Trump administration officials on Tuesday, including John McEntee, the former White House personnel director; Ben Williamson, a former deputy assistant to the president; Nicholas Luna, the former president’s personal assistant; and Molly Michael, Trump’s Oval Office operations coordinator.