The Supreme Court cleared the way on January 26 for the release of presidential records from the Trump White House to a congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The court’s order means that more than 700 documents will be transferred to Congress that could shed light on the events leading up to the insurrection when hundreds of rioters converged on the Capitol attempting to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Only Justice Clarence Thomas said publicly that he would have granted former President Donald Trump’s request to block the document handover from the National Archives to the House select committee. No other justices made an objection public. The Biden White House supports releasing the records to the committee, after determining the disclosure is in the nation’s best interest and declining to assert executive privilege.
“The Supreme Court’s action tonight is a victory for the rule of law and American democracy,” Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, who are chair and vice-chair of the panel, said in a joint statement on January 26. “The Select Committee has already begun to receive records that the former President had hoped to keep hidden and we look forward to additional productions regarding this important information.”
The select committee is seeking more than 700 pages of disputed documents as it explores Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. That includes his appearance at a January 6 rally in which he directed followers to go to the US Capitol where lawmakers were set to certify the election results and “fight” for their county. The documents include activity logs, schedules, speech notes and three pages of handwritten notes from then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, paperwork that could reveal goings-on inside the West Wing as Trump supporters gathered in Washington and then overran the Capitol, disrupting the certification of the 2020 vote. Former President Donald Trump is also seeking to keep secret a draft proclamation honoring two police officers who died in the siege and memos and other documents about supposed election fraud and efforts to overturn Trump’s loss of the presidency, the National Archives has said in court documents.
White House spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement after the ruling that former President Donald Trump’s “actions represented a unique and existential threat to our democracy, and President Biden has been clear that these events require a full investigation to ensure that what we saw on January 6th can never happen again. Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court is an important step forward in that process, and in ensuring accountability for an unprecedented assault on our democracy and the rule of law.”
The move effectively moots former President Donald Trump’s pending appeal in the case that centered on keeping the documents secret. Lawyers for Trump say the documents are sensitive and privileged records. “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’s lawyer, Jesse R. Binnall told the justices. On the other hand, the Biden administration argued that withholding the records based on executive privilege is not in the interest of the United States. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said that in light of the “extraordinary events” of January 6, President Joe Biden had decided that that an assertion of executive privilege is “not justified.”
A federal appeals court ruled against former President Donald Trump, holding that he “has provided no basis for this court to override President Biden’s judgment and the agreement and accommodations worked out between the Political Branches over these documents.” The court noted that the events “marked the most significant assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812,” but agreed to freeze its ruling until the Supreme Court acted. “Under any of the tests advocated by former President Trump, the profound interests in disclosure advanced by President Biden and the January 6th Committee far exceed his generalized concerns for Executive Branch confidentiality,” the panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit wrote.
On January 26, the Supreme Court cited part of that sentence. “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 necessarily made no difference to the court’s decision,” the Supreme Court said. “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,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “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.