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The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected former President Donald Trump's effort to stop the National Archives from giving the House Jan. 6 committee hundreds of pages of documents from his time in the White House.
The court's action clears the way for the National Archives to hand the material over now, while the Supreme Court in the meantime decides whether to hear Trump’s broader appeal of lower court rulings that said he could not stop the material from being produced by asserting executive privilege.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should have granted the Trump motion to block the National Archives from handing the material over while the case is under review.
The legal battle that began in October, when Trump filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Archives from revealing documents that he argued should be shielded by executive privilege. Two lower courts ruled against him.
His lawyers urged the Supreme Court to take up his appeal, arguing it raised novel questions about the extent of a former president's privilege. Wednesday's brief order seemed to agree on that point, calling those questions "unprecedented" and saying they "raise serious and substantial concerns."
There is no deadline for the court to decide whether to take up the Trump appeal. But Wednesday's order means that even if the former president eventually wins on the legal point about the strength of a former president's privilege, any victory would be a hollow one, because the documents will have been turned over in the meantime.
The House committee asked for a trove of documents related to the events surrounding the riot, including records of communication between the White House and the Justice Department leading up to Jan. 6. Trump objected, asserting executive privilege, but President Joe Biden declined to back up that assertion. Instead, he directed the National Archives to hand over the material.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that although Trump retained some limited authority to claim executive privilege, it wasn't strong enough to overcome Biden's decision that Congress has a legitimate need for the material. It cited a 1977 Supreme Court decision in a dispute between former President Richard Nixon and the Archives, which said the incumbent president is in the best position to decide whether the privilege should be asserted.
As long as the Jan. 6 committee cites at least one legislative purpose for the documents, that is enough to justify the request, the appeals court said, even though individual members have suggested they may have partisan political motives in seeking it.
Urging the Supreme Court not to take up the Trump appeal, the committee said it has a proper purpose, because its work will "lead to specific legislative recommendations designed to prevent any future attacks on the democratic institutions of the Republic."
It also discounted Trump's claim that forcing the Archives to hand over Oval Office documents could discourage future presidential aides from providing candid advice. That concern is misguided, the committee said, because the conduct under investigation goes far beyond the typical deliberations concerning a president's official duties.
Leaving the lower court rulings intact would not encourage future presidents to facilitate congressional attempts to get White House documents involving their predecessors for partisan political reasons, the committee said. "The fact that every president will someday be a former president provides an incentive to ensure that the privilege is not eroded or abused."
The committee urged the Supreme Court to act quickly, saying it needed the documents to help guide its investigation.