(CNN) — A federal judge sent a message to Donald Trump on Tuesday that he cannot leave the rule of law and the Constitution behind forever. But that doesn’t mean you won’t try.
A last-minute ruling overturned the former president’s assertion of executive privilege to prevent the National Archives from releasing hundreds of documents pertinent to the House investigation examining the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.
Although Trump is already appealing, the ruling represented a major victory for the House Select Committee investigating one of the most alarming attacks on democracy in US history. It was also a quick blow to Trump’s efforts to run out of time before a possible Republican takeover of the House next year, which would spell an almost certain end to the investigation.
The ruling maintained a fundamental principle that underpins the checks and balances of American democracy that allows the judicial system to intervene to adjudicate a dispute between a chamber of Congress and the executive over the scope of presidential power. Most intriguingly, it also represents the first test of Trump’s ability to use the judicial system to challenge Congress when not protected by the presidential office. It could have implications for the power of former presidents when it comes to executive privilege.
“Presidents are not kings,” Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote, adding: “And the plaintiff is not president,” as she ruled that current commander-in-chief Joe Biden, and not former occupants of the office, is the determining factor. in claims of privilege.
For much of a period that constantly stretched and nearly shattered the principles of American democracy, Trump seemed to believe he had the authority of a king. In fact, the president, who was challenged twice for abuses of power, once declared that article 2 of the Constitution meant that he had “the right to do whatever I want as president.” But Chutkan’s ruling shows that, as a former president, Trump’s belief in his own omnipotence and right to circumvent the rule of law is on even weaker ground than during his four tumultuous years in office.
Boost to the commission of January 6
Tuesday’s ruling offers an immediate boost to the commission investigating a pro-Trump mob attack on Capitol Hill on Jan.6.
The panel has been fighting for key figures in the former president to testify about his attempted coup. He has already cited Trump’s political guru Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress and is waiting to see if the Justice Department will back up his authority and open prosecution in the case.
The commission sent another flurry of subpoenas to Trump’s White House aides and outside advisers this week, but until Attorney General Merrick Garland makes a decision on Bannon’s fate, the extent of the panel’s ability to doing his will remains in doubt.
The commission wants to examine the records of visits and calls to the White House, schedules and notes of senior officials, including former White House Secretary Mark Meadows, to develop a complete picture of the former president’s actions in the run-up to the insurrection. He wants to know who was advising Trump, whether the march to the Capitol was planned in advance, and to know about their failure to stop the looting mob once they entered the Capitol building.
In his view, Chutkan wrote that the House had every interest in examining all aspects of that fateful day “and considering legislation to prevent such events from happening again.” Trump’s lawyers had challenged the notion that the House had a “legislative purpose” when searching for the documents, describing his subpoenas as sweeping and unprecedented takeovers.
For their part, Trump’s lawyers had also asserted an extraordinarily broad claim of executive privilege that, in effect, could have meant that information, some of which is fairly routine, pertinent to the Trump presidency could be kept sealed from the public. in perpetuity.
Executive privilege is the doctrine that presidents can expect advice they receive from officials to remain confidential. Tradition is central to the notion of separation of powers to ensure the integrity of the executive branch and, in practice, it is vital for presidents during major national crises. But while former presidents are viewed as enjoying some protection of executive privilege for events that occurred during their time in office, the final decision is truly seen to rest with the incumbent president. Biden had decided that the national interest represented by obtaining an accounting of the January 6 insurrection outweighed Trump’s desire to keep the material secret.
Chutkan maintained that point of view.
“It is the incumbent president who is best placed to protect the interests of the executive branch,” Chutkan said, adding that the presidential privilege “exists for the benefit of the Republic, not for any individual.”
By invoking the phrase “Presidents are not kings,” the judge was repeating a line used by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in a case about former White House attorney Don McGahn’s defiance of an early subpoena. Ultimately, McGahn testified before Congress, but several years after the initial subpoena, a model that Trump now appears to be following in an attempt to thwart the uprising investigation on Capitol Hill.
Commission chairman tells Trump to mature
Trump’s appeal of Tuesday night’s ruling alone will not prevent the National Archives from beginning to release documents before Friday’s deadline. But he could seek a court order to stop the process while the litigation goes through the appellate courts. Trump’s strategy also potentially means that the case could end up in the Supreme Court and produce unprecedented responses about the extent of a former president’s powers regarding executive privilege.
Select committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, had harsh words for Trump after the ruling was announced.
“If you take your problem to court and you lose, then you need to grow up and deal with it and not be a spoiled brat, so I hope to get this information,” Thompson told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Yet in private, business, and political life, Trump is a serial and often frivolous litigator, viewing the court system as a way of delaying accountability as much as a law enforcement mechanism. Therefore, your appeal, in a process that has been clear for a long time, is intended to time out the commission, is not a surprise.
A Trump spokesman, Taylor Budowich, tweeted a statement indicating that the former president views Tuesday’s ruling as a temporary setback in a much longer process.
“The battle to defend Executive Privilege for past, present and future presidents, from the beginning, was destined to be decided by the Courts of Appeals,” Budowich wrote. “President Trump remains committed to upholding the Constitution and the Office of the President, and will be pursuing this process.”
The idea that Trump is acting to defend the integrity of an office whose traditions he frequently trampled on, and nearly destroyed at the end of his term earlier this year, is ridiculous. His lies about a stolen election and his attempts to use the power of his office to thwart a peaceful transition of power and deny the will of the voters in free and fair elections offer a more accurate reading of his attitude toward the Constitution.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism