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‘Presidents Are Not Kings, and Plaintiff Is Not President’: Federal Judge Rejects Trump’s Attempt to Block the National Archives from Complying with Jan. 6 Committee Investigation

Donald Trump and Bennie Thompson

Former President Donald Trump and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chair of the Jan. 6th Committee

Former President Donald Trump cannot stop the National Archives from complying with the Jan. 6 Committee’s investigation, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

“Plaintiff does not acknowledge the deference owed to the incumbent President’s judgment. His 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,'” U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote in the ruling. “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.”

Trump’s resounding defeat was not unexpected, but the ruling is also not the final word on this matter. Trump’s lawyer Jesse Binnall has already filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Judge Chutkan made no secret last week how she viewed Trump’s legal argument that the committee’s subpoenas served no legislative purpose.

“The Jan. 6 riots happened in the Capitol,” Chutkan said on Nov. 4. “That is literally Congress’s house.”

Despite her broad skepticism toward the legal arguments of Trump’s lawyer Justin Clark, the judge also appeared to be concerned about the scope of the requests, some of which she described as “alarmingly” and “unbelievably” broad.

But Judge Chutkan wrote Tuesday that, “While broad, these requests, and each of the other requests made by the Committee, do not exceed the Committee’s legislative powers.”

“Three facts undergird this conclusion,” the judge added, before recounting those facts at length:

First, the court again notes that the Committee’s requests pertain only to “Presidential records,” which by statute are limited to records reflecting “the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies” of the Presidency. 44 U.S.C. § 2203(a). Accordingly, there is a natural, statutory limit on the types of records that will ultimately be maintained in the Archives and produced to the Select Committee in response to its requests. For example, although the Select Committee has requested certain records, such as polling data, concerning the 2020 election dating back to April 2020, those records, by their very nature, are not Presidential records under the statute, and would not be included in any responsive document tranches sent to the Committee. The same goes for any personal papers or communications.

Second, while some of the Select Committee’s requests are indeed broad, so too is Congress’ power to obtain information. See Watkins, 354 U.S. at 187. The Select Committee appears to be operating under the theory that January 6 did not take place in a vacuum, and instead was the result of a months-long groundswell. See Hearing Tr. at 41:4-7; 42:22-23. Defendants argue that to identify effective reforms, Congress must first understand the circumstances leading up to January 6 and how the actions of Plaintiff, his advisors, and other government officials contributed or responded to that groundswell. NARA Br. at 18. The court notes that the Select Committee reasonably could find it necessary to investigate the extent to which the January 6 attack on the Capitol may have been an outgrowth of a sustained effort to overturn the 2020 election results, involving individuals both in and outside government. But the “very nature of the investigative function—like any research—is that it takes the searchers up some ‘blind alleys’ and into nonproductive enterprises. To be a valid legislative inquiry there need be no predictable end result.” Eastland, 421 U.S. at 509. In fact, the Committee need not enact any legislation at all. Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, 940 F.3d 710, 727 (D.C. Cir. 2019) (explaining that the “House is under no obligation to enact legislation after every investigation”). Nor is it problematic that some requests might ultimately return records that are “irrelevant,” or “impertinent” to its stated goals. Townsend, 95 F.2d at 361. It is not for this court to decide whether the Select Committee’s objective is prudent or their motives pure. See Watkins, 354 U.S. at 200; Eastland, 421 U.S. at 508. Instead, the pertinent question is whether Congress could legitimately legislate in these areas, and, as explained above, it can.

Third, President Biden’s decision not to assert the privilege alleviates any remaining concern that the requests are overly broad.

“For reasons explained above, the court will deny Plaintiff’s request to enjoin Defendants from enforcing or complying with the Select Committee’s August 25, 2021, requests because Plaintiff is unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims or suffer irreparable harm, and because a balance of the equities and public interest bear against granting his requested relief,” Judge Chutkan concluded.

On Oct. 18, Trump sued the Jan. 6th Committee, its chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), the National Archives and Records Administration, and David Ferriero, asserting that the files sought for the investigation were privileged. Court filings indicate that Trump asserted executive privilege over 770 pages of documents. Those include 46 pages of records from the files of former chief of staff Mark Meadows, ex-senior adviser Stephen Miller, and ex-deputy counsel Patrick Philbin, the New York Times reported. Trump also reportedly opposed releasing the White House Daily Diary and a call log between him and then-Vice President Mike Pence concerning Jan. 6.

The less-targeted requests sought all communications between Trump and 40 individuals dating back to April 2020, as well as polling data from his campaign.

Read the ruling below:

(Photo of Trump via Pete Marovich for The New York Times; Photo of Rep. Thompson via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."