(Adds dropped word ‘records’ in first paragraph)
By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON -A U.S. judge questioned Donald Trump’s lawyers on Thursday about their effort to hide hundreds of pages of his White House records from a House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by a mob of his supporters.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan is considering the Republican former president’s arguments that phone call records, visitor logs and other materials requested by the Democratic-led committee should be kept confidential.
Chutkan said at the end of the two-hour hearing that she would issue a written decision “expeditiously.”
“This is not only a monumental argument, but it’s one that will have consequences down the line for generations,” Trump lawyer Justin Clark said in his opening remarks.
Clark said the committee’s requests were invalid because they were unrelated to any legislation being considered by Congress.
Chutkan signaled skepticism of that argument, saying “the Jan. 6 riot happened in the Capitol” so Congress had an interest in investigating the attack.
Chutkan seemed particularly inclined to let the committee see Trump’s visitor logs from his final weeks in office.
“We’re not talking about your client’s banking records from before he became president,” the judge said to Clark. “We’re talking about documents that are quintessentially about government business.”
In a potentially positive development for Trump, the judge said some of the committee’s document requests “seem to be very, very broad” and may need to be narrowed.
Chutkan asked House lawyer Douglas Letter why the committee needed Trump campaign polling data from as early as April 2020.
Letter said the data would shed light on when and why Trump decided to amplify false claims that the November 2020 election was rigged against him. But Chutkan responded that there “must be some limit” to the documents the committee can seek.
Trump on Oct. 18 sued the nine-member select House committee, arguing that the requested materials were covered by a legal doctrine known as executive privilege https://www.reuters.com/world/us/can-trump-use-executive-privilege-block-jan-6-attack-probe-2021-09-09 that protects the confidentiality of some White House communications.
The committee requested the materials from the U.S. National Archives, which holds the records.
Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, the committee’s chairman, and Republican Representative Liz Cheney, its vice chair, said in a statement after the filing of the lawsuit that Trump was seeking to “delay and obstruct” the investigation.
“It’s hard to imagine a more compelling public interest than trying to get answers about an attack on our democracy and an attempt to overturn the results of an election,” Cheney and Thompson said.
Trump gave an incendiary speech before the deadly riot repeating his false claims that the November 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud and urging his supporters to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” His supporters stormed the Capitol in a failed bid to prevent Congress from formally certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. Biden entered the White House on Jan. 20.
The committee has said it needs the requested materials to understand the role Trump may have played in fomenting the riot. It has said the requests are within its powers and driven by the legislative purpose of understanding the facts and causes surrounding the riot and developing legislation to guard against a similar assault in the future.
About 700 people face criminal charges stemming from the riot.
The House on Oct. 21 voted to hold Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, in contempt of Congress https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-house-edges-toward-contempt-charges-against-trump-aide-bannon-2021-10-21 for refusing to cooperate with the investigation, citing Trump’s insistence – disputed by some legal scholars – that his communications are protected by executive privilege.
The Justice Department must now decide whether to bring criminal charges against Bannon.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Howard Goller)