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Judge rejects media outlet requests to unseal Trump Jan. 6 probe documents

A federal judge denied The New York Times' and Politico's bid to unseal documents involving former President Donald Trump's claims of executive privilege, which aimed to prevent former aides from testifying about efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Donald Trump at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa
Donald Trump at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 3, 2022. Charlie Neibergall / AP file

A federal judge in Washington on Thursday denied a request from news outlets to release court records related to former President Donald Trump's efforts to stop ex-aides from testifying before a grand jury about efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

The New York Times and Politico had asked the judge in October to release documents related to the scope of Trump's efforts to stop former aides from testifying about their communications with him. The outlets had argued the public interest in the grand jury investigation outweighed the need for secrecy, but the Justice Department opposed their bid to unseal the court filings amid its ongoing investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell wrote in her 32-page opinion that the filings the media outlets had requested were central to the grand jury’s ongoing investigation and that legal precedent forbade their release “at least for now and perhaps forever.”

"The pending matter highlights the tension that lies between the important policies underlying grand jury secrecy ... and 'the always strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings,'" Howell wrote.

Special counsel Jack Smith was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November to oversee the criminal investigation into efforts to interfere with the results of the 2020 election, and claims of executive privilege have become a key issue in the probe. The investigation is multi-pronged, looking into the creation of alternative slates of pro-Trump electors who could be used to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential victory as well as the events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Former Vice President Mike Pence has recently been subpoenaed by the special counsel, and lawyers for Trump are expected to fight Pence's subpoena on executive privilege grounds.

Several ex-Trump White House aides have also been subpoenaed in the probe, including Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, and Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, who appeared before the federal grand jury in July — the highest-ranking former administration official known to have testified in the case. Short and Greg Jacob, Pence’s counsel, were with the then-vice president at the U.S. Capitol on the day it was attacked by Trump supporters, and later testified before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, as did Cipollone.

The news organizations had specifically sought materials related to two grand jury subpoenas for testimony and to Howell’s decision-making on the scope of Trump’s executive privilege, among other documents.

The Justice Department has opposed the release of sealed documents, arguing that the government had not confirmed the existence of the probe when proceedings began and that parties and witnesses had not publicly acknowledged the grand jury proceedings.

Both news outlets indicated they might appeal Howell's ruling.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for the Times, said in a statement that the outlet is "disappointed" in the ruling.

"We will make a decision about whether to pursue further legal steps once we’ve had time to process the opinion that sets forth the rationale for the decision," she said.

In a statement, Politico spokesperson Brad Dayspring said the news outlet is "committed to the principle that a government of, for and by the people is transparent with the people on such an important matter. We are reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps.”