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Executive Power

District Court Rejects Trump's Executive Privilege Claim for January 6 Records (Updated)

In a well-reasoned opinion, the district court rejects the former President's efforts to prevent the release of information by the National Archives to the January 6 Committee.


Yesterday, a federal district court in the District of Columbia rejected former President Donald Trump's attempt to prevent the National Archives from releasing information to the House Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Judge Tanya Chutkan's opinion in Trump v. Thompson nicely summarized the privilege claims and other arguments against disclosure, and why they should not prevail in this instance. An appeal is sure to follow quickly.

From Judge Chutkan's introduction:

On January 6, 2021, hundreds of rioters converged on the U.S. Capitol. They scaled walls, demolished barricades, and smashed windows in a violent attempt to gain control of the building and stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. This unprecedented attempt to prevent the lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next caused property damage, injuries, and death, and for the first time since the election of 1860, the transfer of executive power was distinctly not peaceful.

The question of how that day's events came about and who was responsible for them is not before the court. Instead, the present dispute involves purely legal questions that, though difficult and important to our government's functioning, are comparatively narrow in scope. Plaintiff—former President Donald J. Trump—challenges the legality of a U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee's requests for certain records maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration ("NARA") pursuant to the Presidential Records Act. Plaintiff argues that the Committee's requests are impermissible because at least some of the records sought are shielded by executive privilege and because the requests exceed Congress' constitutional power. He seeks an injunction prohibiting Defendants—the House Select Committee, the Chairman of the House Select Committee, NARA, and the Archivist of NARA—from enforcing or complying with the Committee's requests. For the reasons explained below, the court will deny Plaintiff's requested relief.

One of the primary issues presented in the case is the extent to which a former President may prevent the disclosure of Executive Branch materials when the current President does not believe such materials should be protected by privilege. From the opinion:

This case presents the first instance since enactment of the PRA in which a former President asserts executive privilege over records for which the sitting President has refused to assert executive privilege. Plaintiff argues that at least some of the requested records reflect his decision-making and deliberations, as well as the decision-making of executive officials generally, and that those records should remain confidential. Specifically, Plaintiff claims such records fall within two constitutionally recognized  categories of executive privilege—the presidential communications privilege and deliberative process privilege—and that he can prevent their disclosure. He argues that his power to do so extends beyond his tenure in Office, in perpetuity, and that his assertion of privilege is binding on the current executive branch. Plaintiff also argues that to the extent the PRA constrains his ability to assert executive privilege, the Act is unconstitutional. In the alternative, he contends that when a former President and current President disagree about whether to assert privilege, a court must examine each disputed document and decide whether it is privileged.

Defendants acknowledge that executive privilege may extend beyond a President's tenure in office, but they emphasize that the privilege exists to protect the executive branch, not an individual. Therefore, they argue, the incumbent President—not a former President—is best positioned to evaluate the long-term interests of the executive branch and to balance the benefits of disclosure against any effect on the on the ability of future executive branch advisors to provide full and frank advice. The court agrees. . . .

At bottom, this is a dispute between a former and incumbent President. And the Supreme Court has already made clear that in such circumstances, the incumbent's view is accorded greater weight. This principle is grounded in "the fact that the privilege is seen as inhering in the institution of the Presidency, and not in the President personally." Dellums, 561 F.2d at 247 n.14 (citing Nixon v. Adm'r of Gen. Servs., 408 F. Supp. 321, 343 (D.D.C. 1976), aff'd, 433 U.S. 425 (1977)). Only "the incumbent is charged with performance of the executive duty under the Constitution." Nixon v. GSA, 433 U.S. at 448. And it is the incumbent who is "in the best position to assess the present and future needs of the Executive Branch, and to support invocation of the privilege accordingly." Id. at 449.

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." Hearing Tr. at 19:21- 22. 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. Public Citizen v. Burke, 843 F.2d 1473, 1479 (D.C. Cir. 1988). That is because Plaintiff is no longer situated to protect executive branch interests with "the information and attendant duty of executing the laws in the light of current facts and circumstances." Dellums, 561 F.2d at 247. And he no longer remains subject to political checks against potential abuse of that power. Nixon v. GSA, 433 U.S. at 448.

Moreover, contrary to Plaintiff's assertion that President Biden's decision not to invoke executive privilege is "unprecedented," Pl. Mot. at 2, history is replete with examples of past Presidents declining to assert the privilege. From President Nixon permitting the unrestricted congressional testimony of present and former White House staff members, to President Ronald Reagan's decision to authorize testimony and the production of documents related to the IranContra affair, including information about his communications and decision-making process, to President George W. Bush's  decision to sit for an interview with the 9/11 Commission to answer questions about his decision-making process in the wake of the attack, past Presidents have balanced the executive branch's interest in maintaining confidential communications against the public's interest in the requested information. The Supreme Court noted that this tradition of negotiation and compromise between the legislative and executive branches extends back to the administrations of Washington and Jefferson. See Mazars, 140 S. Ct. at 2029-31. President Biden's decision not to assert executive privilege because "Congress has a compelling need in service of its legislative functions to understand the circumstances" surrounding the events of January 6, see Pl. Mot., Exs. 4, 6, is consistent with historical practice and his constitutional power.

Judge Chutkan's reasoning is not-too-different from that in this statement on Trump's privilege claims released by members of Checks & Balances earlier this month. I signed this statement, as did my co-bloggers Ilya Somin and Keith Whittington, along with several former executive branch officials.

The court also considered, and rejected, Trump's challenge to the constitutionality of the Presidential Records Act and challenge to Congress's authority to seek these records under the Mazars decision. Of note, it is much more difficult for Trump to argue that Congress lacks a legitimate legislative purpose in obtaining information about executive branch actions than it was to argue that Congress had no such purpose in seeking Trump's personal, private financial records. (I discussed the Mazars decision in depth in this piece.)

As noted above, an appeal is sure to follow (if it has not been filed already). Fortunately, this case is moving along quickly.

UPDATE: Late Wednesday, Judge Chutkan also denied Trump's motion for a temporary injunction to stay her ruling pending appeal. This order was not a surprise. With this out of the way, it's on to the appeal. Meanwhile, the first batch of records is due to the House Committee on November 26.