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Appeals court rules against Trump effort to block document release to Jan. 6 panel

The U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected former President Donald Trump's effort to stop the release of some documents to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
LM Otero
The U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected former President Donald Trump's effort to stop the release of some documents to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Updated December 9, 2021 at 7:00 PM ET

A federal appeals court has denied former President Donald Trump's bid to block the release of some of his White House records to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The unanimous ruling from the three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court's decision that a tranche of Trump White House records can be provided to the Democratic-led committee.

"On the record before us, former President Trump has provided no basis for this court to override President Biden's judgment and the agreement and accommodations worked out between the Political Branches over these documents," Judge Patricia Millett wrote in the ruling. "Both Branches agree that there is a unique legislative need for these documents and that they are directly relevant to the Committee's inquiry into an attack on the Legislative Branch and its constitutional role in the peaceful transfer of power."

The court said it will leave in place its temporary block on releasing the documents for 14 days to allow Trump time to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, as the former president's attorneys have signaled they intend to do.

Still, the ruling is a positive step for the Jan. 6 committee, which said it needs the Trump White House records — communications, calendars, schedules — to get a better picture of what Trump did in the runup to Jan. 6 and on the day itself.

The panel asked the National Archives, which is the custodian of presidential records, to provide the materials. Biden waived executive privilege over the documents, saying the House investigation is unique and there's a public interest in getting to the bottom of the deadly events of Jan. 6.

Trump then sued to try to block the committee from getting the documents, arguing, among other things, that Biden was wrong to waive executive privilege. Rather, Trump's legal team argued that the committee's requests were too broad, and the release could set a dangerous precedent for releasing presidential documents in the future.

Last month, a district court judge ruled against Trump. He quickly appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court, which also has now ruled against him in an expedited schedule of one month's time.

"The central question in this case is whether, despite the exceptional and imperative circumstances underlying the Committee's request and President Biden's decision, a federal court can, at the former President's behest, override President Biden's decision not to invoke privilege and prevent his release to Congress of documents in his possession that he deems to be needed for a critical legislative inquiry," Judge Millett wrote in the opinion.

The court found Biden provided a "carefully reasoned" decision that these documents shouldn't be shielded by executive privilege, and that disclosure was in the national interest. It said Congress has demonstrated its "vital interest" in investigating Jan. 6, and that the documents are relevant to its inquiry.

The court also said Trump failed to allege, let alone demonstrate, any particular harm that would come from disclosing these records.

"Former President Trump likewise has failed to establish irreparable harm, and the balance of interests and equities weigh decisively in favor of disclosure," the court said.

Decision arrives on a busy day for committee

The appellate court's ruling coincides with a day the panel saw three witnesses who had been subpoenaed. Several committee members had expressed optimism for the D.C. Circuit to rule in their favor in the Trump lawsuit.

"We have litigated and won Trump's executive privilege case in Federal District Court," the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, tweeted earlier on Thursday. "The Federal Appellate Court has expedited the appeal, and we anticipate a ruling regarding many more Trump White House documents soon. The investigation is firing on all cylinders."

The committee has seen nearly 300 witnesses, received more than 30,000 documents and more than 250 tips, according to Cheney and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who is another member of the panel.

On Thursday, the panel saw three of the 45 witnesses subpoenaed so far. Trump ally and lawyer John Eastman, former Trump Defense Department official Kash Patel and far-right activist Ali Alexander all appeared before the committee.

Eastman had recently said on a podcast for former strategist Steve Bannon that he would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Bannon, who was also called to testify before the panel, defied his subpoena and is now fighting an indictment for two counts of contempt of Congress.

On Thursday, Alexander, before entering for his deposition meeting, told Capitol Hill pool reporters that he was planning to cooperate with the committee, issued a six-page statement claiming he had nothing to do with the violence seen on Jan. 6.

"I did absolutely nothing wrong," Alexander said.

In Patel's case, he said in a statement issued through a spokesperson that while he had major concerns about the fairness of the committee's proceedings, he appeared to answer questions to the best of his ability. He also said he has received threatening messages since his subpoena was issued, and shared those threats with the FBI.

"I have always been willing and able to share with the Committee, and the American people, the truth about the events of January 6 — including the Department of Defense's preparation for and response to unrest at the Capitol," Patel said in a statement.

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.