The ruling is a crucial victory for the Jan.6 House committee, although it may ring hollow if an appeals court – or, potentially, the U.S. Supreme Court – steps in to slow the process down. The documents Trump seeks to block investigators include files from former chief of staff Mark Meadows, adviser Stephen Miller and deputy White House legal adviser Patrick Philbin, as well as call and visitor logs.
Committee investigators hope these files will provide insight into Trump’s months-long campaign to stoke misinformation about the integrity of the 2020 election, as well as his efforts to arm his administration after his defeat to try to overturn the vote. .
Chutkan began his move by reciting Trump’s months-long efforts to sow distrust of the election results, as well as his attempt to call supporters in Washington to pressure lawmakers to refuse to certify his defeat against Joe Biden. Against this backdrop, thousands of Trump supporters descended and breached the Capitol, hundreds violently attacking police and forcing Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to flee to safety. Hundreds of rioters have since been arrested and charged for their role in the attack.
The Jan.6 committee is examining Trump’s responsibility for inciting the insurgency and began its investigation over the summer by asking the National Archives for massive slices of Trump’s White House documents. Under federal records law, the current president, Joe Biden, received the documents sought by the committee. Biden refused to invoke executive privilege to protect them from the committee.
After Biden’s decision, Trump sued the Jan.6 committee and the National Archives, claiming that as a former president he still had the right to assert executive privilege over records – even if Biden was not disagree. This power, Trump argued, is rooted in a Supreme Court ruling of the Richard M. Nixon era that former presidents retain a “residual” interest in the confidentiality of their own White House records.
But Chutkan said Nixon’s precedent doesn’t help Trump’s case. In this case, the current president – the only “executive” in place – had not weighed on Nixon’s efforts to protect his records. In this case, Biden had already agreed to provide the documents to the Jan.6 committee, waiving confidentiality concerns due to the “unprecedented” nature of the attack on Congress.
“Basically, this is a dispute between a former and a past president. And the Supreme Court has already made it clear that in such circumstances, the incumbent’s point of view carries more weight, wrote Chutkan, citing the Nixon-era ruling.
Chutkan also rejected Trump’s offer to examine each document on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it should be withheld from investigators on Jan.6.
“The court… is not in the best position to determine the interests of the executive branch and refuses to interfere with the executive function in this way,” wrote Chutkan. “He has to assume that the incumbent is in the best position to make these decisions on behalf of the executive.”
“The court will not question [Biden’s] decision by undertaking a document-by-document review that would require it to engage in a function that is strictly reserved for the executive, ”she added.
In oral argument last week, Chutkan first indicated that she considered some of the Jan.6 committee’s demands regarding the Trump files to be extremely broad. She cited requests to discuss the elections and poll data dating back to April 2020. Chutkan repeated this claim in her ruling, but said the requests were within the power of the commission nonetheless.
“[W]Even though some of the select committee’s demands are indeed broad, so too is the power of Congress to obtain information, ”she said.
There was a modest victory for Trump in the ruling: Chutkan agreed with Justice Department lawyers that some of the documents sought by the committee – like poll data – would not be considered “presidential files” and , therefore, should not be produced by the National Archives. The judge added that “personal papers or communications” also fall into this category. The committee could try to subpoena such documents directly from Trump, but so far it has not taken that step.
Chutkan cited a litany of decisions by former presidents to waive executive privilege on matters of national importance, noting that in each case the sitting president passed judgment on what was in the best interest of the public – such as Biden did it here.
“The idea that the contemplated disclosure would seriously compromise the functioning of the executive branch is refuted by the incumbent president’s directive to the archivist to produce the requested documents, and by the actions of the former presidents who also decided to waive executive privilege.” when dealing with questions. of great public importance, such as the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair and September 11, ”said Chutkan.
Legal experts said Chutkan’s decision reflected the relatively slim case Trump had to prevent his files from going to Congress.
“In the final analysis, the judge came to the most logical conclusion: whatever the magnitude of these requests, they were not broader than the authority of the Committee to make them, whereas the legal authorities claimed by the former president were few or far between, ”said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, who filed his own brief supporting the committee’s Jan. 6 offer for the documents.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the House committee, welcomed the decision.
“We can only present the facts,” he said. “Look, I’m glad we got a good ruling from the judge. He says we are on a good footing by getting this information. And if someone is screaming so loud and loud, I guess you definitely have something to hide. If we have access to the records, they will speak for themselves. So we look forward to getting it as a committee. And we’ll let the evidence based on what we’re looking at determine guilt or innocence.