A federal judge will allow the US House to access hundreds of pages of documents from Donald Trump’s presidency leading up to and about the January 6 attack at the US Capitol, in a forceful rejection of Trump’s recent attempts to control information from his White House.
The ruling Tuesday night from Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court in DC is a blow to Trump’s efforts to keep more than 700 pages of records from his White House secret – though his legal team has informed the court it intends to appeal.
“Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President,” she wrote.
As of now, the National Archives remains on track to turn over to the House a number of documents on Friday, including White House call logs, video logs and schedules related to January 6 as well as three pages of handwritten notes from Trump’s then-chief of staff. The outcome in court also could help the House in its pursuit of more information from those around Trump, including witnesses who’ve been subpoenaed and haven’t spoken to the committee yet.
“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,” Chutkan wrote in a 39-page opinion.
The judge, in her ruling, shut down Trump’s arguments in court on several fronts.
She decided that a former president’s wishes couldn’t overcome the decisions of the current president regarding protecting privileged information of the executive branch. “It is the incumbent President who is best situated to protect executive branch interests,” Chutkan said.
She also knocked down Trump for any attempts to protect himself out of secrecy. Presidential privilege “exists for the benefit of the Republic, not any individual,” she wrote. Because of that, Congress and the courts can access presidential communications when there’s a need to inform the public, the judge decided.
In this case, the judge said she wouldn’t look at Trump’s records document by document and wouldn’t second-guess the Biden administration’s decision to release them. She also noted that though the committee has made sweeping requests for requests, it does “not exceed” its legislative power.
The former Republican President filed his lawsuit last month in DC District Court, claiming executive privilege and alleging that the House’s requests for documents are “unprecedented in their breadth and scope” and illegitimate.
The Biden White House has declined to intervene to block access to the Trump records. The National Archives, which inherited Trump’s presidential records after he left office, has said it will begin handing over records to the House committee next week, on November 12, with more document productions set for later in November.
“The 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,” White House spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement Wednesday.
The case has already become an historic test of the power of a former president.
Some of the records Trump has sought to keep secret include White House visitor records, call logs, and notes from his top advisers related to his claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and his reaction to the January 6 attack, according to a sworn declaration from the National Archives.
The House has argued to the court that Trump has no right to keep the documents confidential from his presidency and say the need for the records is to reconstruct Trump’s actions on January 6 and his efforts to undermine the 2020 election.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House select committee, called the ruling a “big deal” for the congressional probe, telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “Cuomo Prime Time” that he looks forward to the panel’s investigators “going through (the documents) with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that our government was not weaponized against its citizens.”
“We can only do that by getting access to the information. I applaud our lawyers who defended us in this court setting,” the Mississippi Democrat said. “I applaud the expeditious ruling that we got because we have to get to this.”
This story has been updated with a statement from the White House Wednesday.