Federal judge rejects media requests to unseal grand jury materials related to Trump's executive privilege claims

February 24, 2023
Ben Marquis

Former President Donald Trump has reportedly asserted his executive privilege and other legal privileges in opposition to federal grand jury subpoenas of some of his associates in relation to the federal investigation of his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the related Jan. 6 Capitol riot of 2021.

Two major media outlets asked a federal district court in Washington D.C. to unseal and release certain documents pertaining to that grand jury, but the judge denied that request in the interest of continued secrecy, the Washington Examiner reported.

What those media outlets were after are details about the disposition of Trump's various privilege claims, particularly with regard to aides of former Vice President Mike Pence who have been brought in to testify as well as former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his chief deputy Pat Philbin, among others.

The judge determined, however, that releasing any such information, even in a redacted form, risked also revealing other information that should remain secret, exposing government witnesses, and undermining the government's ongoing investigation.

Arguments for release

In a 32-page opinion released on Thursday, D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell denied the petitions filed by Politico and The New York Times with regard to the details of former President Trump's privilege claims before the federal grand jury.

The two outlets had argued that the "significant public interest" in that particular information "outweighs the need for continued secrecy," especially given the fact that President Joe Biden has refused to support his predecessor's privilege claims and the concerns of some that the former president was using his asserted privilege to "silence" his former associates on "matters of urgent national significance."

Thus, they requested the unsealing of an assortment of grand jury-related documents, with necessary redactions, including dockets, court opinions and orders, legal briefings, and argument transcripts -- especially those materials in regard to the scope of Trump's executive privilege claims.

The federal government, for its part, filed a sealed response to the petitions and essentially refused to even confirm the existence of the grand jury while it simultaneously argued that nothing related to that apparently hypothetical grand jury should be unsealed.

Requests denied

In Judge Howell's decision, she laid out the various arguments and prior precedents both for and against unsealing materials pertaining to matters before a grand jury but ultimately came down on the side of continued secrecy in this particular case.

"Accordingly, [the grand jury secrecy rule] does not permit such disclosure, at least for now and perhaps forever, and so petitioners’ applications are denied," Howell wrote.

She further noted, "The continued secrecy of certain details about that investigation is required for the sake of grand jury witnesses and the government’s investigation."

Appeals are under consideration

Politico reported that both it and The New York Times were considering filing an appeal for a higher court to override Judge Howell's decision and allow the requested grand jury materials to be unsealed.

"POLITICO is committed to the principle that a government of, for and by the people is transparent with the people on such an important matter," spokesperson Brad Dayspring said in a statement. "We are reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps."

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for The Times, said in a statement, "We are disappointed in the ruling. We will make a decision about whether to pursue further legal steps once we’ve had time to process the opinion that sets forth the rationale for the decision."

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