Former President Donald Trump's efforts to block the release of potentially damning White House records hit a new snag in court -- but his promise to appeal all but guarantees the final call will land with the Supreme Court.
The ruling by a federal appeals court on Thursday set up a potential review by the high court that, pending a promised challenge from the former President, will decide whether the long sought-after records make their way to the same institution that pro-Trump rioters stormed in a failed effort to thwart the certification of President Joe Biden's election victory earlier this year.
The lower court's action, along with some flexing by the committee earlier in the day when it marched in a series of witnesses for interviews, signaled an escalation of the House investigation on the same day it was revealed that Trump could be compelled to testify in a New York state probe into his namesake company.
In its 68-page, unanimous opinion, the federal court not only paved the way for House investigators to obtain crucial evidence but offered a striking explanation of why it came to its conclusion. After rolling their eyes at Trump's argument for keeping the material secret, the judges wrote that "there is a sufficient factual predicate for inferring that former President Trump and his advisers played a materially relevant role" in what they described as "a singular event in this nation's history."
Responding to the court's opinion, Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington did not address the specifics of the decision, but looked ahead to a battle she said was "always destined for the Supreme Court."
Trump, given his expectations of loyalty, surely views the court's conservative supermajority -- including three justices he appointed -- as a more welcoming forum, especially with the high-stakes release of his presidential records in the balance.
A decision in his favor would not only be a rebuke to investigators, but the current administration, which has rejected its predecessor's efforts to put a lid on his records and communications, refusing to assert the executive privilege that Trump is trying to confer upon himself. The House committee, too, has become increasingly aggressive in its pursuit of depositions from individuals they think may be connected to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
House committee turns screws on Meadows
Committe Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, told CNN late Thursday that the process is now in place for a full House vote -- expected for Tuesday -- to hold Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in contempt over his eleventh hour refusal to sit down for an interview. But even as he now plays hard-to-get, Meadows, who angered Trump with the publication of a memoir about his time in the former President's service, might have already provided the committee with damaging information in the form of more than 6,000 documents in connection with the events of January 6.
Included in that tranche, a source told CNN, were messages from Meadows' personal cell phone and email account that relate to "what Donald Trump was doing and not doing during the riot." The documents also made clear, the source said, that Meadows himself was "exchanging (communications) with a wide range of individuals while the attack was underway."
Meadows, in a move that mirrors a famous habit of his old boss, has filed a lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the committee in response to its plans to move forward with criminal contempt proceedings against him.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the committee's vice chair, sounded unimpressed when responding to word of the former North Carolina congressman's legal maneuver, telling CNN, "We look forward to litigating that" -- and making a point of the absurdity underlying Meadows' refusal to answer questions about documents that he voluntarily handed over.
Cheney, one of only two Republicans serving on the committee, warned against underestimating the investigation in a series of tweets Thursday afternoon. The committee, she said, had met with "nearly 300 witnesses" and touted "four more key figures" whose appearances had been overshadowed by Meadows' refusal and a skepticism in Washington about the committee's ability to overcome substantial legal hurdles before Republicans, should they win a House majority next year, summarily disband it.
"The investigation is firing on all cylinders," Cheney said. "Do not be misled: President Trump is trying to hide what happened on January 6th and to delay and obstruct. We will not let that happen. The truth will come out."
Targeting Trump on multiple fronts
The action on Capitol Hill was accompanied on Thursday by the revelation that, up in Trump's old home state of New York, state Attorney General Letitia James is now seeking to depose him as part of her office's civil fraud investigation into the Trump Organization, according to a source familiar with the matter.
James, whose investigation of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's alleged sexual misconduct ultimately led to his resignation, has requested that the former President sit down for an interview with prosecutors by January 7. James is looking into whether Trump's business, which is based in New York, manipulated the value of its properties. (She is also working on a parallel criminal probe alongside Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance focused on other potential crimes committed by the Trump Organization.)
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization offered a typically florid response to the news, which was first reported by The Washington Post, calling Trump the target of a "political witch hunt."
"New York is being overrun by violence, children are being shot in Times Square, arsonists are setting Christmas decorations ablaze and homelessness is through the roof, yet the only focus of the New York AG is to investigate Trump, all for her own political ambitions as she attempts to run for Governor," the spokesperson said -- at around the same time James announced that she had dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary and would seek reelection to her current post.
Back in Washington, January 6 committee members have been cautious in their public statements and media interviews about speculating over what their work might yield. But any clear determination is still a ways off.
Asked if she was concerned that the high court's ideological makeup could lead to a reversal of the appeals court's Thursday opinion, Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, a committee member from Virginia, expressed confidence the ruling would be upheld.
"I think what we would be likely to see from the Supreme Court is that all of the judicial rulings leading up to this point have substantiated the documents are necessary and that President Trump -- he is the former President," Luria told CNN. "He doesn't have a right to executive privilege over these documents."
'We're here to cooperate'
As the appeals court prepared to drop its bombshell, witnesses cycled in and out of meetings with the committee on Thursday. Among them were conservative lawyer John Eastman, who in the run-up to January 6 pushed a dubious legal theory that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the constitutional authority to halt or impede the certification process. The suggestion itself was always bunk, but Trump latched on to it and excoriated Pence at the time for his resistance. By the time the mob had breached the Capitol, demonstrators outside had rolled out a makeshift gallows and chanted, "Hang Mike Pence!"
Eastman appeared in person for his scheduled deposition, a source familiar with the meeting said, though it remains unclear whether he answered the committee's questions or pleaded the Fifth, as he'd previously indicated he would, during their sitdown. Two others, though, told reporters that they cooperated.
Kash Patel, the former chief of staff to then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, met with the committee, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. Patel's appearance capped off a lengthy back-and-forth over when he would come in to testify. A former top aide to the Republican California Rep. Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist, Patel said in a statement after his interview that he had answered the questions posed to him "to the best of my ability."
Whether and to what extent he divulged meaningful information remains to be seen. But CNN has previously reported that the committee told Patel "there is substantial reason to believe" he could provide important insight into how the Department of Defense, by then dominated by a small and unwieldy group of Trump allies, and the White House prepared for and responded to the attack on the Capitol -- a matter they believe might be further illuminated by more details about Patel's communications with Meadows.
Committee members also met with "Stop the Steal" rally organizer Ali Alexander, a right-wing activist whose tweets about the election got him banned from the platform. Alexander told reporters he planned to cooperate and that he had no role in the violence that followed the rally, which had been permitted on the North East side of the Capitol grounds.
It was there, of course, that Trump infamously whipped up the angry crowd and put a target on his vice president.
"Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn't, that will be a, a sad day for our country because you're sworn to uphold our Constitution," Trump said. "Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we're going to walk down, and I'll be there with you, we're going to walk down, we're going to walk down."
Trump did not, in fact, walk anywhere. He returned home after his remarks and his actions from the White House are now under strict scrutiny.
Alexander's behavior is of particular interest because he previously claimed -- during remarks on Periscope in December 2020 -- to have been in contact with a trio of right-wing House members, Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Andy Biggs of Arizona. Alexander has since denied working with any lawmaker in connection with the insurrection that followed his rally.
"We've provided the committee with thousands of records, hundreds of pages. And you know, unfortunately, I think that this committee has gone way too much into our personal life, way too much into my First Amendment," Alexander said on Thursday before his interview. "But I do recognize they have a legislative duty to conduct it, so we're here to cooperate."
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