Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, suffered a major defeat on Thursday when a federal appeals court ruled against his effort to block the release of documents related to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.
Mr Trump is expected to appeal to the supreme court.
A select committee in the House of Representatives is investigating the events on and surrounding January 6th, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in a bid to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election win. Amid scenes of violence that shocked America and the world, five people died and scores were injured.
Mr Trump and a clique of his close advisers have repeatedly engaged in legal action over the committee’s investigations, including refusing to co-operate with it.
But in a 3-0 decision, the US court of appeals for the district of Columbia said there was a "unique legislative need" for documents that the committee has requested but whose release Mr Trump has sought to keep secret through executive privilege – a legal doctrine that protects the confidentiality of some White House communications.
The appeals court ruled an injunction that has prevented the National Archives from turning over the documents will expire in two weeks, or when the supreme court rules on an expected appeal from Mr Trump, whichever is later.
Mr Trump sued the committee and the National Archives to stop the White House from allowing the release of documents related to the insurrection. Mr Biden had waived Mr Trump’s executive privilege claims as the current officeholder.
Arguing for the committee, the US House lawyer Douglas Letter said the determination of a current president should outweigh predecessors in almost all circumstances and noted that both Mr Biden and Congress were in agreement that the January 6th records should be turned over.
The court agreed.
In a 68-page ruling, Judge Patricia Ann Millett wrote: "On the record before us, former president Trump has provided no basis for this court to over-ride president Biden's judgment and the agreement and accommodations worked out between the political branches over these documents."
The opinion continued: “Both branches agree that there is a unique legislative need for these documents, and that they are directly relevant to the committee’s inquiry into an attack on the legislative branch and its constitutional role in the peaceful transfer of power.”
Executive privilege for presidential communications is “a qualified one”, Ms Millett added. “The president and the legislative branch have shown a national interest in and pressing need for the prompt disclosure of these documents.”
The National Archives has said the records Mr Trump wants to block include presidential diaries, visitor logs, speech drafts, handwritten notes "concerning the events of January 6th" from the files of his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, and "a draft executive order on the topic of election integrity".
Such evidence could provide the House committee with crucial details of Mr Trump’s actions and communications in the west wing over the hours that the insurrection unfolded. The mob was acting on his “big lie” that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
Democrats welcomed the court's ruling as a victory for democracy. Gerry Connolly of Virginia told the MSNBC network: "It's in the finest judicial tradition, upholding the rule of law and asserting that nobody is above the law.
“It harkens back to the Pentagon Papers decision and the handing over of the White House tapes during the Nixon years in Watergate. These are critical kinds of judicial rulings that buttress democracy and democratic institutions and the rule of law. So I was very pleased to see today’s new ruling.”
All three of the appeals court judges who heard the arguments were nominated by Democrats. Ms Millett and Judge Robert Wilkins were nominated by Barack Obama. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a Biden appointee seen as a contender for a supreme court seat should one open during the current administration.
Mr Trump is almost certain to appeal to the supreme court, where three of the nine justices were appointed during his presidency. The court would be asked to weigh the views of a former president versus those of the incumbent on the scope of executive privilege.
The House committee said on Thursday it is moving towards holding Mr Meadows in contempt of Congress after he failed to co-operate. It said it would hold a business meeting on Monday to vote on a report recommending the full House cite Mr Meadows for contempt of Congress and refer him for federal prosecution.
Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman and Trump critic who is vice-chairwoman of the committee, tweeted on Thursday: "The investigation is firing on all cylinders."
Mr Trump also faces legal peril in New York, where attorney general Letitia James is seeking a deposition with him early next year as part of her investigation into alleged fraud inside the Trump Organization. – Guardian