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Lawyers for Trump, Jan. 6 panel spar in federal court over records fight

Former President Donald Trump has sued to stop the National Archives from turning over requested records to the Jan 6 committee.
Former President Donald Trump has sued to stop the National Archives from turning over requested records to the Jan 6 committee.

Lawyers for the Democrat-led House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack told a federal judge on Thursday that President Biden — not former President Trump — is in the best position to decide what records can be released to the panel.

Last month, Trump sued the committee and the National Archives agency to stop the panel from acquiring his presidential records tied to the Jan. 6 attack.

In this first hearing, lawyers for both sides noted to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan that the case marks the first legal test that pits a current president against his predecessor over such a document fight.

"The harm exists to the institution of the presidency," Trump attorney Justin Clark said in his arguments. He also noted that the case is "monumental" and could have "consequences down the line for generations."

"Thank you for reminding me of that," Chutkan joked.

Who has the final say on executive privilege

Trump has claimed executive privilege, a legal shield that protects certain presidential documents and conversations from public disclosure, still applies to a previous administration. He has also used that claim to encourage former officials subpoenaed by the panel not to cooperate.

The privilege largely sits with the current president, defense attorneys for the Jan 6. committee and National Archives argued.

Biden "has determined that the public interest lies in the production of those records to Congress to further its investigation," defendants' attorney Elizabeth Shapiro told the judge. "There is no irreparable injury to the plaintiff here."

Shapiro argued, the judge should rely on the precedent established in Nixon v. GSA. The 1977 ruling held that records could be released for a former president, despite objections from former President Nixon in that case.

But Trump has claimed the committee's requests amount to "nothing less than a vexatious, illegal fishing expedition" endorsed by Biden.

Trump attorney Clark noted the document requests are "overly broad." and directed the judge rely on another previous ruling, Trump v. Mazars, to render her decision. That 2020 case found congressional requests for presidential records must adhere to a narrow focus for a legislative purpose, and Clark argued it was not clear any legislation would be developed from the panel's probe.

The judge seemed to question that argument.

"The January Six riot happened in the Capitol, that is literally Congress' house, they are charged with oversight," Chutkan told Clark.

She later added that the effort to put together legislation could reasonably still be underway.

"Isn't it appropriate" Congress may not yet know how much or what kind of legislation, "is required until they have completed their fact-finding process?" Chutkan asked.

The status conference hearing comes after a flurry of filings in the case since Trump filed the suit on Oct. 18 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., including briefs by both sides defending their arguments.

Last month, Biden authorized the National Archives, which is the custodian of such document, to share a first wave of records requested by the committee. A move that did not go unnoticed by Chutkan, noting that Biden has essentially waived Trump's claims to executive privilege.

Chutkan ended Thursday's hearing after nearly two hours of arguments, noting she would issue her ruling "expeditiously."

Next steps for the committee

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Ranking Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., first responded to the lawsuit last month by saying it was "nothing more than an attempt to delay and obstruct our probe."

So far, the Jan. 6 panel has issued dozens of requests for documents to federal agencies, tech companies and individuals tied to Trump and the Jan. 6 attack. In addition, more than a dozen former Trump officials and rally organizers have received subpoenas for their testimony.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and a member of the panel, said by last week, the committee has held dozens of informal interviews or depositions with cooperative witnesses.

"We're seeing robust cooperation from a lot of witnesses, most people are really participating and understand the legal and civic duty, nature, of the discussion, so that's good," Raskin said. "There have been dozens of interviews, as well as depositions."

In all, the committee has also held about 150 interviews, a committee aide tells NPR.

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Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.