Supreme Court allows release of Trump White House docs to January 6 committee

Former president argues documents were protected by executive privilege

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 20 January 2022 01:07 GMT
Supporters of Donald Trump storm the US Capitol on 6 January 2021
Supporters of Donald Trump storm the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 (EPA-EFE)

Donald Trump cannot block the release of White House documents about the 6 January riot at the US Capitol, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The House committee investigating the insurrection has been battling the former president for access to the records, which include diaries and visitor logs.

Mr Trump had argued the materials, now stored in the National Archives, should be kept confidential under executive privilege.

“The disagreement between an incumbent President and his predecessor from a rival political party is both novel and highlights the importance of executive privilege and the ability of Presidents and their advisers to reliably make and receive full and frank advice, without concern that communications will be publicly released to meet a political objective,” Trump attorney Jesse R. Binnall had told the justices.

In October, the Biden administration declined to exercise executive privilege over the records, clearing the way for them to eventually be released, prompting a challenge from Mr Trump.

A month later, a federal court ruled against the former president’s efforts to block the release, a decision affirmed by a federal appeals court in December.

“The questions whether and in what circumstances a former President may obtain a court order preventing disclosure of privileged records from his tenure in office, in the face of a determination by the incumbent president to waive the privilege, are series and substantial concerns,” the Supreme Court wrote of its near-unanimous decision on Wednesday.

However, the ruling added that “because the Court of Appeals concluded that President Trump’s claims would have failed even if he were the incumbent, his status as a former president necessary made no different to the court’s decision”.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissent against the decision to allow the records to be released.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, meanwhile, added an explanatory note to his yes vote, arguing that generally speaking, “a former president must be able to successfully invoke the presidential communications privilege for communications that occurred during his presidency, even if the current president does not support the privilege claim. Concluding otherwise would eviscerate the executive privilege for presidential communications.”

The National Archives will now turn over more than 700 documents to investigators, including activity logs, schedules, speech notes, and handwritten notes from Trump administration White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Investigators are hoping the records will shed light on the moments and decisions leading up to the attack on the US Capitol, as well as the Trump administration’s response once the riot was underway, and its dubious claims about election fraud.

“Tonight’s ruling is a major setback for former President Trump in his efforts to block the National Archives from turning over documents to the January 6 Committee,” Steve Vladeck, professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told CNN. “Although the justices did not rule on whether the court of appeals correctly rejected his suit, by not blocking the handing over now, the justices have allowed that ruling to be the final word.”

The ruling marks a rare victory for the committee inquiry, which has struggled to secure direct testimony from top Trump officials.

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