A federal judge in Washington ruled late Tuesday that hundreds of pages of Trump White House records can be turned over to a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol despite the former president’s objections.
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,” Chutkan wrote in a 39-page opinion. “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 probing Trump’s communications and activities leading up to and during the riot by a mob of his supporters that contributed to at least five deaths and forced the evacuation of Congress as it met to certify the 2020 presidential election results.
In court filings, the House has argued that it needs the communications records “of the then-President who helped foment the breakdown in the rule of law” by assembling thousands of supporters in Washington after a months-long effort to falsely brand the 2020 election as stolen.
On Oct. 18, Trump sued the chairman of the House’s Jan. 6 select committee and the head of the National Archives in an attempt to stop the handover of executive branch records sought by the panel. Trump attorneys objected to the release of the records, saying that as a former president, he retained a residual right to assert executive privilege, even though President Biden had waived it.
Presidents require “full and frank” advice to carry out their duties, and the confidentiality of such deliberations must survive more than a few months or years after they leave office to protect the institution of the presidency, his lawyers asserted.
The appeals court set an initial written briefing deadline for Dec. 27, and Trump overnight asked Chutkan for an emergency injunction barring release of documents pending appeal. Legal analysts say the fight is expected to continue well into next year, with a delay potentially working to Trump’s advantage if the courts have not settled the question before the November 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans hope to unseat this Democratic Congress.
In a statement on Twitter, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the legal struggle is just beginning.
“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.”
In her ruling, however, Chutkan noted that the Biden administration had approved the release of his predecessor’s White House records.
There can be only one president at a time, the judge wrote, holding that Trump’s assertion 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 language used by fellow jurist Ketanji B. Jackson in 2019 in rejecting Trump’s request to toss out a congressional subpoena seeking testimony by his White House counsel Donald McGahn.
“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 added that she would not second-guess that decision by undertaking a document-by-document review as requested by Trump’s attorneys, saying that would require “the court to engage in a function reserved squarely for the Executive.”
White House spokesman Mike Gwin said court’s opinion is “consistent with what the President has already said, that January 6th represented an ‘existential crisis’ for our democracy and that it is absolutely vital for there to be a full accounting of the events on that day to ensure that something like that never happens again.”
The ruling, if upheld, could greatly speed the work of the committee. Of nearly 800 pages of documents that Trump has sought withheld, many such as White House visitor and call logs are unavailable elsewhere.
Other responsive records identified by the National Archives include emails and other communications; draft speeches and talking points on election irregularities; and memos regarding potential lawsuits against states Biden won.
They also include “potential or scheduled briefings and telephone calls concerning the January 6 certification and other election issues,” and a draft executive order on the topic of 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.”
The panel has issued subpoenas to at least 20 top Trump aides, including former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
The House last month voted to hold Bannon in criminal contempt for failing to cooperate, referring his case to the Justice Department for potential prosecution. On Friday, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark also refused to answer questions about whether Trump attempted to use the department to overturn the election during a closed-door interview with the panel.
Six others issued subpoenas last Thursday were legal scholar John Eastman and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who were active in the Willard hotel “command center” where Trump’s loyal backers oversaw efforts in January to overturn the 2020 election.
The rest included reelection campaign manager Bill Stepien; senior adviser Jason Miller; national executive assistant Angela McCallum; and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
On Tuesday the panel issued subpoenas to 10 other Trump administration officials, 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, the Oval Office operations coordinator to Trump.
Jacqueline Alemany, Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.