WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that former President Donald Trump cannot prevent the House Jan. 6 committee from getting hundreds of documents that were created when he was in the White House.
A three-judge panel of 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 need for the prompt disclosure of these documents," Judge Patricia Millett wrote for the court.
Trump's lawyers are likely to file an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court 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 a remark attributed to Benjamin Franklin 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.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee's chair, and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., its vice chair, issued a joint statement Thursday praising the court's decision.
“We applaud the Court’s decisive ruling, which respects the Select Committee’s interest in obtaining White House records and the President’s judgment in allowing those records to be produced. Our work moves ahead swiftly," the lawmakers said. "We will get to the truth.”
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 the records from the National Archives, Trump 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 in a dispute between former President Richard Nixon and the archives. It said that while former presidents retain some ability to assert 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 to hear the case. But they indicated during courtroom arguments that their next stop would be the Supreme Court if the the three-judge panel ruled against them.
The 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.