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In this file photo taken on January 6, 2021 US President Donald Trump arrives to speak to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House in Washington, DC. A US federal judge has ruled that White House records that could implicate former President Donald Trump in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol can be released to a Congressional committee investigating the violence. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: A federal judge on Tuesday night rejected a bid by former President Donald Trump to keep secret papers about his actions and conversations leading up to and during the January 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters.

In a 39-page ruling, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia held that Congress’ constitutional oversight powers to obtain the information prevailed over Trump’s residual secrecy powers - especially because the incumbent, President Joe Biden, agreed that lawmakers investigating the January 6 riot should see the files.

Trump “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,’ “ Chutkan wrote. “But presidents are not kings, and plaintiff is not president.”

Trump retained the right to assert that his records were privileged, she added, but Biden was not obliged to honour that assertion. The incumbent president, she said, is better situated to protect executive branch interests, and Trump “no longer remains subject to political checks against potential abuse of that power.”

The ruling does not necessarily mean that the National Archives will turn over the materials to the House committee investigating January 6 any time soon. The case raises novel issues about the scope and limits of a former president’s executive privilege authority, and it is likely that it will ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court.

In a posting on Twitter, Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for Trump, said the case was destined to be appealed. He said Trump was committed to defending the right of past presidents - as well as present and future ones - to assert executive privilege and “will be seeing this process through.”

But in a statement after the ruling, Bennie Thompson, who is chairman of the committee, called the lawsuit “little more than an attempt to delay and obstruct our investigation.”

'Ruling is consistent with that tradition'

“Along our country’s history, the executive branch has provided Congress with testimony and information when it has been in the public interest,” he said. “This evening’s ruling is consistent with that tradition. And in my view, there couldn’t be a more compelling public interest than getting answers about an attack on our democracy.”

The January 6 committee has demanded that the National Archives and Records Administration turn over detailed records about Trump’s every movement and meeting on the day of the assault, when Trump led a “Stop the Steal” rally and his supporters then sacked the Capitol in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Trump - who pursued a strategy of stonewalling all congressional oversight subpoenas while in office, running out the clock on such efforts before the 2020 election - has instructed his former subordinates to defy subpoenas from the January 6 committee and filed a lawsuit seeking to block the National Archives from turning over files from his White House.

Last week, Chutkan, a 2014 Obama appointee, had signalled scepticism about Trump’s legal arguments. Trump’s lawyer asserted that his residual executive privilege powers meant the courts should block Congress from subpoenaing the files, notwithstanding Biden’s decision not to assert executive privilege over them in light of the circumstances.

Trump’s lawyer had argued that the public interest would be served by letting Trump keep the documents secret to preserve executive branch prerogatives. But Chutkan wrote that his arguments did not “hold water” in light of Biden’s support for making them public and Congress’ need to investigate the attack without undue delays.

Congress and the Biden administration, she noted, “contend that discovering and coming to terms with the causes underlying the Jan. 6 attack is a matter of unsurpassed public importance because such information relates to our core democratic institutions and the public’s confidence in them. The court agrees.”

This week, Trump’s lawyer, Jesse R. Binnall, demonstrated an intent to keep going by asking Chutkan to impose an emergency injunction on the National Archives barring it from turning over the records while he appealed the matter to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Biden has instructed the head of the National Archives to turn over the first tranche of the materials subpoenaed by the January 6 committee Friday, unless there is a court order by then blocking him from doing so.

Noting that Thursday is a federal holiday, Binnall said he wanted to make sure there was an order preserving the status quo by then, and said he would file a request before the D.C. Circuit for such an injunction if Chutkan did not act by Wednesday.

“This case should be decided after thorough but expeditious consideration pursuant to America’s judicial review process, both before this court and on appeal, not by a race against the clock,” Binnall wrote, adding: “This is not a game.”

Chutkan denied that request earlier Tuesday, saying it was premature since she had not yet issued any ruling. But she promised to rule “expeditiously in this matter” and said she would consider a motion for a stay by the losing party at that point.