US appeals court judges on Tuesday signalled scepticism towards former president Donald Trump's bid to keep records about his conversations and actions before and during the deadly January 6 US Capitol riot away from congressional investigators.
A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard an oral argument, still continuing, in Mr Trump's appeal of a judge's decision that the records should be turned over to a congressional committee.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned why Mr Trump should be able to challenge and overrule President Joe Biden's determination that the papers should be handed over.
“Is there a circumstance where the former president ever gets to make this sort of call?” asked Ms Jackson, seen as a possible future Supreme Court nominee for Mr Biden.
Mr Clark argued that a 1978 law called the Presidential Records Act gives Mr Trump that power.
“I don't see that in the statute,” Ms Jackson responded.
The House of Representatives select committee investigating the riot has asked the National Archives — the US agency housing Mr Trump's White House records — to produce visitor logs, phone records and written communications between his advisers.
The panel has said it needs the records to understand any role Mr Trump may have played in fomenting the violence.
Judge Patricia Millett also asked why a former president's determination should overrule one by the current president.
“We only have one president at a time under our constitution,” Ms Millett said.
The three judges also pressed Trump's lawyers, Jesse Binnall and Justin Clark, over whether courts even have jurisdiction to hear the former president's claims.
“All three branches of government have acknowledged there is a right of former presidents to challenge the designation and release of presidential records,” Mr Binnall responded.
Mr Trump sued the committee and the National Archives to try to prevent the release. In court filings, Mr Trump's lawyers called the Democratic-led investigation politically motivated, and argued that the documents sought by the committee are protected by executive privilege, a legal doctrine that allows presidents to keep private some of their conversations with advisers.
Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from formally certifying his 2020 presidential election loss to Mr Biden.
Shortly before the riot, Mr Trump gave a speech to his supporters repeating claims that the election had been stolen from him through widespread voting fraud and urging them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to “stop the steal".
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan on November 9 rejected the claim, saying the Republican former president had not acknowledged the “deference owed” to Mr Biden's determination as president that the House committee could access the materials.
“While broad, these requests, and each of the other requests made by the committee, do not exceed the committee's legislative powers,” Ms Chutkan said in her decision.
“Presidents are not kings, and plaintiff is not president.”
The court put off allowing the committee to access the records while it considers the matter. The three judges on the appeals panel randomly assigned to the case were appointed to the judiciary by either Mr Biden or former president Barack Obama, both Democrats.
If Mr Trump loses, he could take the matter to the US Supreme Court. Mr Trump also has directed associates to stonewall the committee, which has sought evidence and records from a number of them.
His former chief strategist Steve Bannon has already been charged with two counts of contempt of Congress for defying the committee, pleading not guilty.