The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected former President Donald Trump’s request to quash subpoenas for White House records relating to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Trump attempted to invoke executive privilege to stop the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack from accessing a trove of documents relating to Trump’s activities on Jan. 6 and those of his top confidants. The Court’s brief decision was unsigned and Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member to note his dissent.
Wednesday’s decision signals a new phase for the committee’s work, which thus far has struggled to penetrate Trump’s inner circle. The papers the panel is seeking will help them reconstruct the ex-president’s activities ahead of Jan. 6, and could leverage some of his former aides into cooperating. Some, like former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, have refused the committee’s requests for depositions and documents, citing Trump’s assertions of privilege.
Records the committee is seeking include Trump’s call and visitor logs and any record related to the security of the Capitol or his bid to contest the 2020 election. The National Archives holds papers of past administrations. President Joe Biden is backing the committee’s subpoenas.
Trump’s appeal had support from his top aides, including Meadows and former senior adviser Stephen Miller, whose litigation outfit America First Legal filed an amicus brief urging the Court to "rein in" the Jan. 6 committee.
Miller’s group argued that Trump’s political enemies are exploiting their unified control of the government to rifle through his administration’s most sensitive internal documents "to prosecute the former president and intimidate the seventy-four million Americans who voted for him."
"A former president’s executive privilege claim should not depend on how much he or she is despised by the ruling faction," the brief reads.
The Jan. 6 panel cited Meadows for contempt in December and asked the Justice Department to prosecute him. Lawyers for Meadows filed their own brief emphasizing that the ongoing dispute puts him and other Trump confidants—like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and lawyer John Eastman—in an impossible position.
"If they follow President Biden’s direction and provide privileged testimony to Congress, they effectively moot President Trump’s assertion of executive privilege—as well as this Court’s opportunity to clarify waiver of privilege held by former presidents," the brief reads. "If they follow President Trump’s direction and defy a subpoena without first seeking judicial recourse they face the prospect of prosecution."
The filing urged the Court to take Trump’s case for the sake of potential witnesses caught up in the dispute. Meadows is represented by George Terwilliger, who was former attorney general William Barr’s top deputy in the George H.W. Bush administration.
Trump’s lawyers generally argued that the committee is on a fishing expedition, trolling White House papers in hopes of finding something that will cripple the ex-president’s political prospects. They compared the Jan. 6 subpoenas to the subpoenas House Democrats issued for Trump’s financial documents, which the High Court panned in July 2020.
Lawyers for House Democrats countered that Congress can investigate and pass legislation in response to high profile breaches of public trust, as happened after Watergate and the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. The Biden administration agreed in its own filing, saying the committee is seeking records akin to those released during Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair.
"Congress often legislates by probing past illegality to determine why it occurred, how it could be prevented, whether more resources should be allocated to prevention, and whether and how existing laws should be changed," legal papers from House Democrats read.
A federal trial judge in Washington and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against Trump, prompting his appeal to the High Court. The appeals court said the incumbent president is best positioned to manage privilege claims—including those made by his predecessors—and suggested a former president can’t invoke privilege over the incumbent’s objections. Wednesday’s unsigned decision said that conclusion doesn’t control future cases, a sign some justices were troubled by the lower court’s opinion.
"Any discussion of the court of appeals concerning President Trump’s status as a former president must therefore be regarded as nonbinding," it reads.
The case is No. 21A272 Trump v. Thompson.