Former President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to block the National Archives from turning over records from his time in the White House to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Lower court rulings directing the National Archives to hand the material over to Congress were wrong, his lawyers said in their appeal.
"The decisions below effectively gut the ability of former presidents to maintain executive privilege over the objection of an incumbent, who is often, as is the case here, a political rival," they said.
The House committee is asking for a trove of documents related to the events surrounding the riot, including records of communications between the White House and the Justice Department leading up to Jan. 6. Trump objected, asserting executive privilege, but President Joe Biden declined to back up his assertion. Instead, he directed the National Archives to hand over the material.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled this month that although Trump retained some limited authority to claim executive privilege, it wasn't strong enough to overcome Biden's decision that Congress has a legitimate need for the material.
The appeals court ruling cited a 1977 Supreme Court decision in a dispute between former President Richard Nixon and the National Archives, which said the incumbent president is in the best position to decide whether the privilege should be asserted.
Writing for the appeals court, Judge Patricia Millett said the privilege for presidential communications is a qualified one that must give way when necessary to protect overriding interests.
"The president and the legislative branch have shown a national interest in and pressing need for the prompt disclosure of these documents," she wrote.
The appeals court put a 14-day hold on its ruling to allow Trump's lawyers time to appeal. They asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to continue the hold while the justices decide whether to take up his appeal.
Trump's legal team said the lower courts were wrong to find that the House select committee investigating the riot had a legitimate legislative purpose in seeking the documents. Its real purpose wasn't merely fact-finding, they said, but an attempt to seek information embarrassing to the former president.
"Public comments of committee members make it clear that the body is acting more like an inquisitorial tribunal than a legislative committee," they said.
The lower courts moved quickly to hear Trump's lawsuit, but his lawyers told the Supreme Court there's no rush given that the next congressional meeting to count electoral votes is more than three years away.
Members of the House Jan. 6 committee, however, have stressed that they feel an urgency to complete their work promptly. If the Democrats lose their majority after the midterm elections, the committee would be out of business.
Late Thursday, the committee asked the Supreme Court to act quickly to decide whether to take up Trump's appeal. Moving quickly "is warranted because of the indisputable importance and urgency of the select committee's investigation," its lawyers said.
"Delay would inflict a serious injury on the select committee and the public" because it needs the documents now "to help shape the direction of the investigation."
The court is likely to seek a response from the National Archives before it decides whether to take the case. There is no deadline for the court to act.