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Appeals court sides with House on access to White House records

Trump’s lawyers expected to appeal ruling to the Supreme Court

Members of the House Jan. 6 select committee, including Chairperson Bennie Thompson, right, address reporters after a hearing in July. Also appearing, from left, are Reps. Elaine Luria, Adam B. Schiff, Liz Cheney, Jamie Raskin, Zoe Lofgren, Pete Aguilar and Adam Kinzinger.
Members of the House Jan. 6 select committee, including Chairperson Bennie Thompson, right, address reporters after a hearing in July. Also appearing, from left, are Reps. Elaine Luria, Adam B. Schiff, Liz Cheney, Jamie Raskin, Zoe Lofgren, Pete Aguilar and Adam Kinzinger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal appeals court on Thursday denied former President Donald Trump’s request to stop certain White House records from going to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but the court fight will go on.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit gave Trump’s lawyers two weeks to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court before the transmission of documents from the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, to the Jan. 6 panel. Trump’s lawyers have indicated they will do so.

A three-judge panel unanimously found that Trump had “provided no basis” for the courts to override President Joe Biden’s judgment that executive privilege should not be asserted on those documents or to override the agreement the Biden administration worked out with Congress about them.

“Both branches agree that there is a unique legislative need for these documents and that they are directly relevant to the Committee’s inquiry into an attack on the Legislative Branch and its constitutional role in the peaceful transfer of power,” the opinion states.

Trump filed the lawsuit after he asserted executive privilege over some of the documents. He argues that the disclosure would hurt the office of the president by compromising the ability of presidents to get full and frank advice from advisers without worrying that it will soon become public and be used as a political weapon.

But Biden disagreed with that assessment for at least the first three batches of records in the House panel’s request, determining that the public interest in the House probe outweighs the confidentiality concerns underlying executive privilege.

The D.C. Circuit judges said they did not come to the decision lightly because the confidentiality of presidential records is critical to the effective functioning of the presidency.

But the executive privilege over documents must give way when necessary to protect overriding interests, and the president and committee “have shown a national interest in and pressing need for the prompt disclosure of these documents,” the opinion states.

Trump, on the other hand, “failed that task” of meeting the legal standards that apply to everyone else to get an injunction, the court found. That includes Trump failing to demonstrate any harm that would arise from the disclosure of the documents, particularly when Congress has a vital interest in studying the Jan. 6 attack.

At this early point in the legal fight, when it comes to getting an injunction to stop the production of records, Trump needed to convince the appeals court he was likely to win the lawsuit. The National Archives had been set to give the first batch of records to the House on Nov. 12, absent a court order.

Because Trump didn’t meet his burden, the D.C. Circuit wrote that it did not even need to decide to what extent a court could second guess a sitting president’s judgment that invoking privilege is not in the best interests of the United States.

But they recognized the difficult position courts would have in ruling for Trump. “A court would be hard-pressed under these circumstances to tell the President that he has miscalculated the interests of the United States, and to start an interbranch conflict that the President and Congress have averted,” the D.C. Circuit wrote.

The House Jan. 6 panel requested records related to dozens of people, both in and out of the Trump administration. That includes Trump and his family members, as well as “any documents and communications involving White House personnel and any Member of Congress” related to the Jan. 6 attack or the validity of the presidential election.

The case is one of several pending court actions related to the Jan. 6 panel. A federal judge set a July trial date for former White House adviser Stephen Bannon, who was indicted last month on two counts of contempt of Congress for not complying with a subpoena.

And former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows filed a lawsuit against the House Jan. 6 committee on Wednesday, as members of the panel looked to move forward with contempt of Congress charges against him. On Thursday, the select committee announced it would meet this coming Monday at 7 p.m. to consider a report recommending the full House hold Meadows in contempt of Congress.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Thursday in a scheduling note that the chamber would vote on a resolution to hold Meadows in contempt this coming Tuesday.

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.

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