Washington (AFP) – A US federal appeals court on Thursday rejected former president Donald Trump’s bid to prevent the release of White House records relating to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The appeals court agreed with a lower court ruling that President Joe Biden could waive executive privilege on the records, so that they could be handed over to a Congressional panel investigating the violence by Trump supporters.
Trump, who has been accused of fomenting the attack on the US Congress, sought to exercise his privilege as a former president to keep the documents and phone records that might relate to the attack a secret.
But the court said Biden’s judgment carried more weight in the case.
“The right of a former president certainly enjoys no greater weight than that of the incumbent,” the appeals court said in its ruling.
“In this case, President Biden, as the head of the Executive Branch, has specifically found that Congress has demonstrated a compelling need for these very documents and that disclosure is in the best interests of the nation,” the court said.
Supreme Court appeal expected
The ruling did not trigger the immediate release of the records. The appeals court said that Trump’s lawyers would have two weeks to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
There, Trump’s attorneys are expected to request a new freeze on the release while the high court reviews the unprecedented case.
“Regardless of today’s decision by the appeals court, this case was always destined for the Supreme Court,” said Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington.
“President Trump’s duty to defend the Constitution and the Office of the Presidency continues, and he will keep fighting for every American and every future administration.”
The appeals court said the public interest was greater than Trump’s own in relation to the records, which are held by the National Archives.
“That public interest is heightened when, as here, the legislature is proceeding with urgency to prevent violent attacks on the federal government and disruptions to the peaceful transfer of power,” it said.
The records are sought by the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 violence, in which hundreds of Trump supporters forced the shutdown of Congress and delayed a joint session to confirm that Joe Biden had won the November 2020 election over Trump and would become president.
“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,” the special committee’s Democratic chairman Representative Bennie Thompson and Republican vice chair Liz Cheney said in a joint statement Thursday.
Documents that Trump hoped to block include records from his top aides and memos to his former press secretary.
The more than 770 pages include records of his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, his former senior advisor Stephen Miller and his former deputy counsel Patrick Philbin.
Trump had also hoped to block the release of the White House Daily Diary — a record of his activities, trips, briefings and phone calls.
Another trove of documents Trump does not want Congress to see includes memos to his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, a handwritten note on the January 6 events and a draft text of his speech at the “Save America” rally, which preceded the attack.
“Today, the Courts have once again rejected the former President’s campaign to obstruct Congress’s investigation into the January 6th insurrection,” Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a statement after the ruling.
“No one can be allowed to stand in the way of the truth – particularly not the previous President, who incited the insurrection.”
The January 6 committee meanwhile continued to push ahead in its investigation.
Witness and document requests indicate it is seeking to determine whether the White House played a role in encouraging or even plotting the January 6 attack as part of Trump’s effort to prevent Biden from taking office.
Cheney, the committee’s vice-chair, said it had now heard from nearly 300 witnesses, including four on Thursday: former Trump aide and Pentagon official Kash Patel; Ali Alexander, who helped organize the pro-Trump rally at the White House before the Capitol attack; and two others.
When Trump political consultant Steve Bannon refused to testify on his role on January 6, he was held in contempt, and then arrested by the Justice Department.
Next week, the committee is expected to also rule Meadows in contempt for refusing to testify.
“The investigation is firing on all cylinders,” Cheney said on Twitter.
“President Trump is trying to hide what happened on January 6th and to delay and obstruct. We will not let that happen.”