The major blow on Wednesday — yet another instance of the courts rebuking Donald Trump’s attempts to use them for his own political gain — will allow the committee to go even deeper inside his West Wing and understand what was going on before and during his mob’s attack on the US Capitol. It will also likely be viewed by the former President as a betrayal by the court’s conservative majority, which he cemented with three picks for the top bench whom he saw as a legal insurance policy as he’s continually sought to bend governing institutions to avoid accountability.
The decision means that 700 documents — including schedules, speech and call logs, and three pages of handwritten notes from then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — can be transferred from the National Archives to the House committee, a process that was already underway Wednesday evening.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, welcomed the court decision as a “victory for the rule of law and American democracy” and vowed to uncover all the facts about the violence of January 6 and its causes.
Trump had mounted an intense effort to avoid such scrutiny and had already lost cases in district and appellate courts as part of a broad campaign of obstruction of the committee, which has included expansive executive privilege claims by ex-aides — even some, like his populist political guru Steve Bannon, who were not serving White House officials at the time of the insurrection.
Another committee member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” that the Supreme Court ruling was a “very big deal for getting the truth out.”
“We are going to get these documents and we are going to go through them and help piece this picture together,” the California Democrat said.
The case came together after President Joe Biden declined to support Trump’s attempt to prevent the handover of the documents, arguing that the attack on the Capitol was such an affront to the Constitution that it must be investigated. The Supreme Court did not rule on the key legal question of what happens when there is a dispute between a current and a former president on the scope of executive privilege — a concept meant to ensure that advice to a commander in chief from subordinates can stay private. But it allowed to stand a ruling by the appellate court that found Trump had not demonstrated that his concerns for executive branch confidentiality should override “profound interests in disclosure” cited by Biden.
Trump’s lawyers had asked the Supreme Court for a full review of the case, citing important issues of privilege that will reverberate through history. But the committee made a request for an expedited review just before Christmas, citing the urgency of its investigation. The ruling closes off one avenue of Trump’s legal strategy: running out the clock on the investigation before November’s midterm elections and a possible GOP takeover of the House.
Net tightens around Trump West Wing
The Supreme Court’s ruling will play into an intense debate over efforts by former Trump aides to assert executive privilege in order to avoid testifying to the committee. Some of those claims are especially unusual and, according to many legal experts, frivolous because they cover conversations between officials and outsiders, rather than with the then-President.
Wednesday’s ruling, in which only conservative Justice Clarence Thomas signaled dissent, will also offer a new mark of legitimacy to the select committee, amid claims by pro-Trump Republicans that it is an illegally constituted witch hunt despite being voted into being by the House. It will also boost the committee’s race against time as it tries to complete its work before a possible new Republican majority shuts it down.
The net has significantly tightened around the Trump White House in recent weeks.
CNN reported earlier this month that the committee had received firsthand information from multiple sources about what Trump had been doing in the White House during the insurrection. Then-Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser Keith Kellogg, who was with Trump on that notorious day, has also testified to the panel, sources told CNN’s Jamie Gangel.
On Tuesday, CNN exclusively reported that the committee had subpoenaed and obtained phone number records from one of the ex-President’s sons, Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is engaged to his brother, Donald Trump Jr. The committee is interested in investigating the level of coordination between Trump’s team and organizers of the Washington rally at which the then-President told supporters who later moved to the Capitol to “fight like hell” to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election win. Committee members also want more information on the extreme legal scheme hatched by some Trump advisers designed to convince Pence to interfere in the process of counting electoral votes from the states. And the panel wants answers on why it took Trump so long to call for his supporters to leave the Capitol.
But even if Wednesday’s decision helps the committee paint an even more dire depiction of Trump’s culpability for the riot and his behavior on January 6, it appears unlikely to meaningfully reshape the fraught politics of the insurrection. Swathes of the Republican Party, especially in the House, have done their best to whitewash Trump’s role that day as he contemplates a possible comeback presidential bid in 2024. Millions of Trump supporters are persuaded by his false claims of election fraud and his argument that the real insurrection was in the November 2020 election, rather than on January 6, 2021.
A blow to Trump’s perverse sense of loyalty
There is no doubt, however, that Trump will be apoplectic that his three Supreme Court nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, did not publicly dissent from denying his bid to keep his West Wing records secret. Trump has repeatedly slammed the Supreme Court for throwing out his false claims of election fraud, claiming he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice even though his delusional cases were also dismissed by multiple lower courts. Even before the election in 2020, the then-President had said it was important to quickly confirm Barrett so that she could be in place to vote on any election disputes.
Throughout his presidency, Trump appeared to equate judicial and Cabinet nominations with an act of patronage, viewing those selected as owing him a debt that would be repaid by pursuing his interests rather than honoring the rule of law and the Constitution. He frequently railed at judges who knocked back administration policies, viewing them as politically motivated if they disagreed with his view of a case. The most notorious example of this desire for almost feudal loyalty came when he pressed then-FBI Director James Comey for a pledge of fealty early in his administration, before later firing him over the Russia probe.
The Supreme Court ruling was the second legal blow to Trump in as many days. In a late-night court filing on Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said her office had uncovered “misleading or fraudulent” financial statements from Trump’s business empire. She is seeking to compel testimony from Trump, Trump Jr. and the ex-President’s daughter Ivanka Trump as part of her civil investigation into the Trump Organization.
The former President has denied wrongdoing, and a spokesperson for the Trump Organization said in a statement that the “allegations are baseless and will be vigorously defended.”
The gathering clouds around Trump would represent a grave legal and reputational risk to a normal politician, but given his talent for impunity, it’s far from certain that they will slow his political aspirations.