On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled against former President Donald Trump’s claims of executive privilege, declaring that the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol breach has the right to view documents from Trump’s final weeks in the White House.
Trump cannot block the January 6 commission or its investigators from receiving the documents from the National Archives, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said in her ruling.
The former president had previously asserted executive privilege to avoid releasing the documents. Executive privilege is usually invoked by sitting presidents to protect themselves from scrutiny, generally revolving around the decision-making process for developing policy. However, the law enables incumbent presidents to have the ultimate say, and current President Joe Biden waived Trump’s claims in mid-October.
Trump’s lawyers filed an appeal of the ruling less than an hour after it was issued.
“The battle to defend Executive Privilege for Presidents past, present & future — from its outset — was destined to be decided by the Appellate Courts,” a spokesperson for Trump said.
Chutkan observed that the dispute was one between “a former and incumbent President,” adding that “the Supreme Court has already made clear that in such circumstances, the incumbent’s view is accorded greater weight.”
While Trump’s legal argument maintained that his claims of privilege over his communications and other documents relating to the January 6 attack were owed consideration, the former president “does not acknowledge the deference owed to the incumbent President’s judgment,” Chutkan said in her opinion.
“[Trump’s] position that he may override the express will of the executive branch appears to be premised on the notion that his executive power ‘exists in perpetuity,'” Chutkan said. “But Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President. He retains the right to assert that his records are privileged, but the incumbent President ‘is not constitutionally obliged to honor’ that assertion.”
Chutkan also noted that Trump sought to use the courts to settle a dispute within the executive branch. But the judiciary “is not best situated to determine executive branch interests, and declines to intrude upon the executive function in this manner,” Chutkan said, adding that, absent any real legal challenges, courts “must presume that the incumbent is best suited to make those decisions on behalf of the executive branch.”
In a statement after the ruling was made, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the vice chair of the January 6 commission, said that he considers Trump’s lawsuit “little more than an attempt to delay and obstruct” the select committee’s inquiry. Thompson applauded Chutkan’s ruling, saying that “there couldn’t be a more compelling public interest than getting answers about an attack on our democracy.”
Trump’s appeal means that litigation into the matter could last well into 2022, a delay that would benefit the former president, particularly if Republicans win the midterms in November. If Republicans take control of the House, they would undoubtedly shut down the investigation by the select committee.
That’s if the appeals process goes slowly, however. The initial hearing of Trump’s grievances over his supposed executive privilege came about on an expedited basis. It’s possible that future action on the issue could take a similar course, though the time frame of the process is currently unclear.