WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court issued a short-term injunction on Thursday blocking the National Archives from turning over to Congress documents from the Trump White House related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a day before the House committee investigating the attack was set to receive the first batch.
The move, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, will preserve the status quo while lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump, Congress and the Biden administration submit briefs over the next two weeks. The briefs will address whether the court should further block any transfer of papers as the litigants turn to arguing over the merits of the case, which raises novel issues about an ex-president’s executive privilege powers. The court will then hold arguments on Nov. 30.
The Jan. 6 committee has demanded detailed records about Mr. Trump’s movements and meetings on the day of the assault, when Mr. Trump led a “Stop the Steal” rally and his supporters then stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block Congress from certifying President Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Mr. Trump has invoked executive privilege over the first set of archival materials from his White House. But Mr. Biden has declined to echo that assertion, instead instructing the National Archives to turn over those materials on Friday if there were no court order to do otherwise.
The order came as the committee threatened to consider contempt proceedings against Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, for refusing to comply with its subpoena. Through his lawyer, Mr. Meadows said he felt “duty bound” to follow Mr. Trump’s instructions to defy the committee’s demands for records and testimony, citing executive privilege.
The committee’s chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, said Mr. Meadows had “no valid legal basis” for not submitting to questioning. He noted Mr. Meadows had previously told the committee that he was searching for documents to comply with its records request.
Mr. Meadows is the third ally of Mr. Trump to refuse to cooperate. The House has already voted to hold Stephen K. Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress and said it would consider action against Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department lawyer who participated in Mr. Trump’s frenzied efforts to undermine the election with false claims of widespread fraud.
In recent weeks, some members of the committee have grown increasingly frustrated that Mr. Meadows has not sat for an interview with investigators, even though the committee’s leaders said he was “engaging” with the panel.
“Our patience with those who may or may not be seeking simply to delay is running out,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and a member of the committee. “We won’t hesitate to move forward with a criminal contempt if we reach the conclusion that any party is not engaging in good faith.”
The related lawsuit over whether the committee can gain access to Trump White House records traces back to last month, when Mr. Trump sued the National Archives and Congress in an attempt to block their disclosure.
Understand the Claim of Executive Privilege in the Jan. 6. Inquiry
A key issue yet untested. Donald Trump’s power as former president to keep information from his White House secret has become a central issue in the House’s investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Amid an attempt by Mr. Trump to keep personal records secret and a move to hold Stephen K. Bannon in contempt of Congress, here’s a breakdown of executive privilege:
What is executive privilege? It is a power claimed by presidents under the Constitution to prevent the other two branches of government from gaining access to certain internal executive branch information, especially confidential communications involving the president or among his top aides.
What is Trump’s claim? Former President Trump has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the disclosure of White House files related to his actions and communications surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. He argues that these matters must remain a secret as a matter of executive privilege.
Is Trump’s privilege claim valid? The constitutional line between a president’s secrecy powers and Congress’s investigative authority is hazy. Though a judge rejected Mr. Trump’s bid to keep his papers secret, it is likely that the case will ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Is executive privilege an absolute power? No. Even a legitimate claim of executive privilege may not always prevail in court. During the Watergate scandal in 1974, the Supreme Court upheld an order requiring President Richard M. Nixon to turn over his Oval Office tapes.
May ex-presidents invoke executive privilege? Yes, but courts may view their claims with less deference than those of current presidents. In 1977, the Supreme Court said Nixon could make a claim of executive privilege even though he was out of office, though the court ultimately ruled against him in the case.
Is Steve Bannon covered by executive privilege? This is unclear. If any contempt finding against Mr. Bannon evolves into legal action, it would raise the novel legal question of whether or how far a claim of executive privilege may extend to communications between a president and an informal adviser outside of the government.
What is contempt of Congress? It is a sanction imposed on people who defy congressional subpoenas. Congress can refer contempt citations to the Justice Department and ask for criminal charges. Mr. Bannon could be held in contempt if he refuses to comply with a subpoena that seeks documents and testimony.
Earlier this week, a Federal District Court judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, rejected Mr. Trump’s challenge — and declined as well a request by Mr. Trump’s lawyer that she nevertheless block the National Archives from turning over the files while the former president pursued an appeal of her ruling.
Mr. Trump’s legal team then asked the appeals court for the brief pause, while proposing an expedited schedule for briefing on whether the court should issue a lengthier injunction during the appeal. Lawyers for Congress and the Justice Department, which is representing the National Archives, took no position on the request for the brief pause.
The request for the short-term injunction was randomly assigned to three judges: Patricia A. Millett, Robert L. Wilkins and Ketanji Brown Jackson. The first two were appointed by President Barack Obama; Judge Jackson was appointed by President Biden.
While president, Mr. Trump used the slow pace of litigation to run out the clock on congressional oversight subpoenas. But Judge Chutkan has moved quickly, disposing of the district court stage 23 days after the case was filed.
The appeals court now appears to be throttling back the pace.
In asking for the short-term injunction while the court considered the preliminary issue, the Trump legal team had proposed wrapping up briefings by early next week and was silent on whether there ought to be oral arguments. But in a brief unsigned opinion, the appellate panel decided to take more time to work through it — allowing more time for written briefs and scheduling arguments for the end of November.