WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that former President Donald Trump cannot prevent the House Jan. 6 committee from getting hundreds of documents created when he was in the White House.
A three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that although Trump retained some authority to claim executive privilege, it was not strong enough to overcome President Joe Biden’s decision that Congress has a legitimate need for the material.
“The executive privilege for presidential communications is a qualified one that Mr. Trump agrees must give way when necessary to protect overriding interests. The president and the legislative branch have shown a national interest in and pressing deed for the prompt disclosure of these documents,” wrote Judge Patricia Millett for the court.
Trump’s lawyers will likely now file an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court in an effort to block the release. The court put a 14-day hold on its own ruling to give his lawyers time to pursue an appeal.
The appeals court said Trump could not show any specific harm that he would suffer from the disclosure of the documents.
Millett closed her ruling by quoting Benjamin Franklin’s words that we have “[a] Republic”—“if [we] can keep it.”
“The events of January 6th exposed the fragility of those democratic institutions and traditions that we had perhaps come to take for granted,” she wrote. “In response, the President of the United States and Congress have each made the judgment that access to this subset of presidential communication records is necessary to address a matter of great constitutional moment for the Republic.”
Lawyers for the House have said the Jan. 6 committee needs the records to complete a thorough investigation into “how the actions of the former president, his advisers, and other government officials may have contributed to the attack on Congress to impede the peaceful transfer of presidential power.”
After the committee sought Trump administration records from the National Archives, the former president asserted executive privilege over more than 700 pages of documents. But Biden decided that the material should be released to Congress.
The appeals court cited a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that was issued in a dispute between former President Richard Nixon and the Archives. It said that while former presidents retain some ability to assert the privilege, the sitting president is in the best position to evaluate when such claims should be honored.
“Former President Trump has given this court no legal reason to cast aside President Biden’s assessment,” Millett wrote in Thursday’s decision.
Trump’s lawyers could now ask the full D.C. Court of Appeals to hear the case. But they indicated during courtroom arguments before the three-judge panel that their next stop would be the Supreme Court, in the event that the panel ruled against them.
This case deals only with documents sought by the committee, not with the issue of whether former Trump administration officials can assert executive privilege in refusing to answer the committee’s questions.